MOSS PARK THROWN A LIFELINE
The unsanctioned safe injection site housed for nine months in a tent gets a permanent space indoors, but without decriminalization of hard drugs activists say the opioid crisis can’t be beaten
Almost a year after it opened in a tent in Moss Park, the unsanctioned overdose prevention site set up by the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance in Moss Park will be moving into a new indoor facility in a repurposed art gallery a few blocks away from the park this month.
The Moss Park OPS will operate with the “arm’s length” support of South Riverdale Community Health Centre, says SRCHC CEO Lynne Raskin, after receiving six months’ funding and a federal exemption to operate legally last month.
At a press conference to mark the announcement, Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy, commended the Moss Park volun- teers, calling them “courageous activists” who stepped into a “flawed system” to save lives and helped change provincial and federal policy on safe injection sites.
As a result, resistance toward safe injection sites is changing at city hall, he says.
The site was opened last August amid the worst overdose crisis in the city’s history – some 187 overdose deaths between May and October of 2017, more than double the 87 during the same period in 2016.
“We were so desperate and so hurt,” says Peter Leslie, a harm reduction worker who’s been a volunteer at the site since the beginning. “We needed to open right away.”
Before his own battle with drug use, Leslie was a paramedic. He says his time on the streets opened his eyes to the realities that many marginalized communities face. “I couldn’t understand why all these people were homeless.”
Leslie says the experience has transformed his views. Harm reduction, he says, is about more than just helping to make sure people inject safely. It’s also about removing the stigma and shame associated with drug use “to let people know that they can take control... with support and education.”
The Moss Park site began as a symbol of anguish and frustration. Over time it became emblematic of the resolve of volunteers who showed up early to set up the tent every day and stayed late after their shifts to pack it up again. It blew over in wind storms, and had no power or running water.
In late November, ahead of winter’s
plummeting temperatures, the province’s largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, donated a heated trailer “in the absence of government leadership.” Volunteers endured recordbreaking temperatures throughout the winter. Through it all, luckily no one died while using the site.
“Rain, snow, Christmas, New Year’s, media, police,” says Sarah Ovens, a social worker and one of the coordinators at the site, “whatever obstacles we were facing, people have just kept showing up here and saying, ‘We’re going to figure it out together.’”
Many of the volunteers who staff the site began as users, slowly making the transition into integral parts of the operation. They attended court for community members and wrote letters of support to people in prison. They raised money – over $100,000 – to continue their efforts, worked tens of thousands of hours and reversed hundreds of overdoses.
But without decriminalization of hard drugs, activists say the opioid crisis can’t be beaten.
* * * Zoë Dodd, a driving force behind the Moss Park site, never imagined she would be in a room full of police chiefs talking about the drug war and its associated trauma when the effort began.
Yet there she was on the heels of the Moss Park funding announcement, at the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) two-day conference on the overdose crisis. Just as perspectives at city hall seem to be changing, so too are those of the leaders in policing.
Chief Bryan Larkin of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, who serves as president of the OACP, says the magnitude and complexity of the opioid crisis spurred the need for the conference. And while harm reduction and safe injection sites are still polarizing issues in the policing community, Larkin says the conference helped facilitate important dialogue between groups often at odds on the issue.
“We’ve never subscribed to the belief that we can arrest our way out of the opioid crisis,” says Larkin.
At the same time, he adds, the policy moving forward may be to put even more emphasis on going after drug traffickers.
Canada already has mandatory minimums for trafficking, producing or importing drugs. Recently, police forces across the country have increasingly been laying manslaughter charges against dealers alleged to have sold drugs tainted with fentanyl.
But Dodd, who has seen the effects of criminalization first-hand – children taken from their homes, homelessness and prison – says stricter enforcement would be a mistake.
“If anything, [police] need to take the brunt of the blame for why we’re in an overdose crisis.”
Decriminalization was one focus of discussion at the conference, which looked at different approaches, like Portugal’s decriminalization of illicit drug use and the resulting decrease in overdose deaths.
Natalie Kallio, who runs the safe injection site at South Riverdale, also spoke at the OACP conference. She says that when police make a big bust, it can actually have an adverse effect on the kind of drugs that end up in users’ hands, as dealers who favour profit over safety end up cutting more of their supply with potentially deadly ingredients, like fentanyl. “We know that it’s just going to make the shit on the streets that much worse.”
The idea that removing some of the supply makes drugs more dangerous has backing in research. Kenneth Tupper, a director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, was the principal investigator of a recently published report from a drug checking program, which found that 88 per cent of opioids tested positive for fentanyl.
“It’s Russian roulette,” says Tupper. “Black markets are unregulated, uncontrolled – it’s a complete buyer-beware situation.”
In Toronto, researcher Dan Werb is leading a study with St. Michael’s Hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and three of the frontline safe injection sites to provide users with detailed information on the breakdown of their drugs.
Knowing a particular supply’s composition will allow researchers to tailor advice to individual users on how to use safely. The fentanyl testing strips currently available are limited – they can tell someone if there is fentanyl, but not how much or what else might be in their supply. Werb hopes to have the project launched before the end of the year.
The topic of bad drugs keeps coming up among Moss Park volunteers. Ovens says: “There’s still a lot to do and decriminalization is what we’re ultimately fighting for. We can turn our attention to that next.”
“We’ve never subscribed to the belief that we can arrest our way out of the opioid crisis.”
Many of the volunteers at the Moss Park overdose prevention site began as users.