Ford’s government starts its misguided moves against safe injection sites

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
Aug. 13, 2018.   By

It is one thing for a new government to review past policies and get itself up to speed on current issues. That is to be expected.

Still, it is quite another to put people’s lives at risk while doing so. But that is what the Ford government has accomplished in one fell swoop.

It has stopped three temporary overdose prevention sites from opening across Ontario while Health Minister Christine Elliott conducts a review to see if these units — as well as permanent supervised injection facilities — “have merit” and are worth continuing.

This is unconscionable. As Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs Toronto’s drug strategy tweeted on Monday: “It’s akin to announcing a pause on life saving surgeries in hospitals across Ontario.”

The entire country is facing an opioid-overdose crisis of a magnitude that was unimaginable only a few years ago.

Last year, nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses. And 1,100 of those deaths were in Ontario and over 300 of them in Toronto.

If this were a flu or measles epidemic there is no doubt the Ontario government would be acting with urgency. But here, they’re busy downplaying the problem.

On Monday, Elliott refused to even call the rising numbers of deaths a “crisis,” referring to it instead as a “serious concern.”

To get some perspective on that, 44 people died of SARS in 2003, and that wasn’t just a crisis, it was officially called an epidemic.

These temporary overdose prevention sites that the government shuttered before they could even open were in Toronto, St. Catharines and Thunder Bay. And the loss of even a single facility could translate into hundreds of needless deaths.

Staff at The Works, a supervised injection site operated by Toronto Public Health, for example, have reversed 213 overdoses since it opened a year ago. And in just nine months staff at a temporary facility in Toronto’s Moss Park reversed more than 200.

Despite that, Elliott stunningly told reporters on Monday that there was some evidence “they’re not as effective as some people think they are.” She didn’t elaborate, when pressed, on what that evidence was.

Its existence will, no doubt, be a surprise to experts around the world who say these facilities not only save lives, they reduce the risk of needle-transmitted diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, and put users in touch with rehabilitation services.

Ford’s government hasn’t just stopped three urgently-needed facilities from opening, it seems all but ready to close existing sites and throw the province’s entire harm-reduction strategy out the window.

The future of eight other temporary overdose sites, funded until the end of September, is something Elliott said depended on the outcome of her review — and, more ominously, “whether the premier decides to continue with the sites or not.”

That suggests the government has little intention of making an evidence-based decision on whether to continue to open sites and fund harm reduction.

And that’s something health experts have feared since Ford announced during the election campaign that he was “dead set” against the sites opened by the previous Liberal government and would close them down if elected.

Why? Because he believes the focus should be on drug rehabilitation.

But as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath pointed out in the Legislature on Monday: “People can’t get treatment if they are dead.”

The government is putting people’s lives in danger with actions that appear to be guided by Ford’s ignorance rather than the evidence that supports overdose prevention and supervised injection sites.

Conduct a review, by all means. But do not endanger the lives of drug addicts while waiting for the results.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/08/13/fords-government-starts-its-misguided-moves-against-safe-injection-sites.html

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