Toronto gets its first supervised drug consumption sites — three of them

A prescription heroin user receives his sterile, pre-measured dose of heroin for using in the injection room at Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver.
A prescription heroin user receives his sterile, pre-measured dose of heroin for using in the injection room at Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver.

Health Canada approved three supervised drug consumption sites on Friday in Toronto — marking the first time the county’s most populous city will be allowed to provide the harm reduction service.

These approvals come one week after the department approved four other sites: three in British Columbia and one in Montreal for a mobile site.

Before last week, the only federally sanctioned supervised consumption sites in North America were located in Vancouver, due to the fact that a cumbersome and restrictive application process made it nearly impossible for communities to get the necessary approvals.

But a new piece of federal legislation implemented in May, Bill C-37, has eased those restrictions, making the process a whole lot easier amid an opioid overdose crisis that has claimed thousands of lives in recent years. Health Minister Jane Philpott has estimated that 2016 saw around 2,300 overdose deaths in Canada. Philpott has been pursuing a suite of progressive drug policies to help address the ongoing crisis that has swiftly moved from BC to the Maritimes.

Though Philpott has rejected decriminalizing illicit drugs, citing a lack of evidence, she has made the opioid overdose antidote naloxone more readily available, and introduced measures to allow communities to import prescription heroin in bulk as a treatment for those with chronic opioid addictions.

“International and Canadian evidence demonstrates that, when properly established and maintained, supervised consumption sites save lives without increasing drug use or crime in the surrounding area,” Philpott said in a news release. “They decrease infections and the transmission of communicable disease, and can also decrease the use of emergency departments, as well as hospital admissions related to injection drug use.”

For Jason Altenberg, director of services at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, which will open one of the three sites, this represents a huge milestone for the city that’s seen rising overdose rates over the last decade.

“It’s an acknowledgement that we need to approach this crisis from a health and human rights standpoint and we need to create more spaces that are decriminalized,” said Altenberg. “It’s a tragedy that so many people have been lost already. This is one piece of the puzzle that has to be solved through bigger policy decisions, but it is an important part of the solution.”

He said he hopes the proliferation of the sites across the country will prompt serious discussions about the decriminalization, and ultimately regulation, of illicit drugs in the future.

Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy, who has been at the forefront of the city’s effort to get the sites approved, previously told CBC drug users who use the service will be supervised by nurses, and access to other treatments will be available if they choose.

“That’s part of an integrated healthcare approach to drug use that is desperately needed in this country and city,” he said.

There are now 12 federally approved safe consumption sites in Canada, and at least a dozen other applications for sites from other cities are currently in the queue.

This article was originally posted on VICE