TORONTO – An interim safe injection site in Toronto — the first such officially-sanctioned facility in Canada’s most populous city — will save lives as the city grapples with a spike in suspected overdoses, public health officials said Monday as the temporary location was set to open its doors.
The site, which can accommodate three people at a time, is at Toronto Public Health’s downtown harm reduction facility, known as The Works. It launched a day after receiving approval from Health Canada and about a week after harm reduction advocates set up an unsanctioned injection site in a city park.
“Today is very good day because we’re able to offer this service to our clients,” said Shaun Hopkins, manager of facility. “They really need it and we think they’re going to use it and hopefully we can save some lives here.”
The city is currently constructing three permanent supervised injection sites, but they won’t open until some time this fall.
The current interim facility — where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of a medical professional —will operate between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday. The facility has one table, three chairs, three desk lamps and three containers for sharp objects. Nurses and counsellors are also on site to monitor and answer questions.
Toronto received approval for three permanent facilities in June. Recently, however, the city sought approval from Health Canada to open an interim spot due to a worsening overdose crisis, which many officials blame on the deadly opioid fentanyl making its way into the drug supply.
Health Canada inspected the small facility late last week, said Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa, with the approval announced on Sunday.
“It provides a safe environment for people who are going to use drugs to use their drugs because we know both through research evidence and through lived experience that it’s a very, very high risk — and in fact it’s the highest risk for overdose and for deaths related to overdose — when people use alone,” de Villa said outside the facility.
“That’s why we’re creating this safe space — we provide a safe environment for people to use their drugs safely so that they minimize harm to themselves and to others.”
Health Canada echoed de Villa’s thoughts in a statement announcing the interim site’s approval.
“International and Canadian evidence shows that, when properly established and maintained, supervised consumption sites save lives and improve health without increasing drug use or crime in the surrounding area,” it said.
There have been 325 suspected overdoses in the four weeks leading up to Aug. 13, according to the most recent data available from the city’s Toronto Overdose Information System.
Police and health officials have warned of a spike of drugs tainted with fentanyl in recent months.
For Hopkins, the last year or so has been difficult, she said.
“We’re relieved that we’re going to be able to provide this service,” Hopkins said. “We want to be able to offer people a safer, more dignified place to use drugs in an area where can monitor them. We’re tired of hearing about our clients overdosing and dying.”
In response to the growing crisis, harm reduction workers set up an unsanctioned safe injection site in Toronto’s Moss Park, citing the city’s growing string of overdoses and suspected overdose deaths as the catalyst.
Nick Boyce, a harm reduction advocate who has been volunteering at the so-called “pop-up” safe injection site, said five people have been revived from an overdose at or near the area.
“This is an emergency situation … and the pop-up site shows the need for this kind of service,” he said.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said Monday that the force has no plans to take down the illegal site.
There are safe injection sites currently running in Vancouver, Surrey, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Montreal with clinics under review in many other Canadian cities, including Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton.
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