City seeks federal nod to open supervised injection sites
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has indicated support for sites, while province has yet to commit to funding.
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The city and two local health providers will formally request federal permission on Wednesday to operate three supervised injection services in Toronto.
Toronto would be the first Ontario city and third Canadian city to have supervised injection sites — something considered to be a huge triumph for advocates. It could also pave the way for other municipalities to open sites amidst an ongoing overdose crisis in Canada.
But as the city moves to submit applications to the federal government, which will be announced Wednesday, the province has been silent on its willingness to fund the program.
“The sooner these sites open the more lives will be saved and the more people we can move into treatment at the same time,” said Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs the city’s drug strategy implementation panel and who is leading the push at city hall for approval of the sites.
“We’ve reached a tipping point in our country over the last two years and in our province, where supervised injection services are increasingly seen as a necessary solution to a problem we’re facing.”
Overdose deaths in Toronto increased by 77 per cent between 2004 and 2014, from 146 in 2004 to 258 in 2014 — an all-time high.
In a 36-3 vote in July, council overwhelming approved integrating three sites in the Queen West, Leslieville and Yonge-Dundas neighbourhoods.
That decision was largely backed by the public after consultations and Mayor John Tory, who called approving supervised injection sites the “moral thing to do.” It followed a push by the former medical officer of health David McKeown who recommended the sites as an evidence-based way to reduce overdose deaths while benefitting local communities that see the affects of public needle use.
The sites would be located within three established centres at the Toronto Public Health-operated The Works, the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre on Bathurst St. and the South Riverdale Community Health Centre near Carlaw Ave.
Approving the sites would allow anyone to bring in their own illegal drugs and inject them in a private booth under the supervision of a nurse, who can monitor for signs of disease and overdose.
Under controversial legislation introduced under former prime minister Stephen Harper, the city and health providers must go through an onerous application process with the federal government for exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to operate the sites.
Health Minister Jane Philpott has publicly supported supervised injection sites as a harm reduction strategy and has said the government will work with municipalities who want and need the sites.
“I want them to be made available because I know that they save lives,” she told The Canadian Press this month.
Submitting an application is a critical next step, said Dr. Rita Shahin, the city’s associate medical officer of health. She said the city expects a “fairly quick and favourable” response from the federal government.
The sites applying for exemption, she said, are in neighbourhoods where a majority of drug use is already taking place in the city.
The other important piece is funding, which the city requested of the province in August. It’s estimated to cost $1.8 million in annual operating costs for the three sites as well as $350,000 in one-time renovation costs.
Shahin said the city has yet to receive a response from the province.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to open in 2017 if we get the funding,” she said.
Cressy said the investment in supervised injection “will have a huge impact on the lives of Torontonians and reducing healthcare costs overall for our city.”
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said in an emailed statement he supports “any discussion around making our communities safer” and that supervised injection sites “can be part of the solution.”
Adding the province looks forward to working with the city and the federal government, he did not answer a question about whether they would be willing to fund the program.