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Open-flame ban forces Toronto drug-use site to abandon heated medical tent

With bitter winds beginning to batter Toronto, the tent was a semi-permanent measure that both the government and activists described as a place for drug users to keep warm under the eye of volunteers trained to prevent overdoses.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Activists running an illegal overdose-prevention site in Toronto's Moss Park have stopped using a heated medical tent provided by the provincial government after they say officials warned them no open flames could be used inside the structure.

Ontario's Health Minister decided last week to increase resources toward the opioid crisis by installing the military-style tent. With bitter winds beginning to batter Toronto, the khaki tent was a semi-permanent measure that both the government and activists described as a place for drug users to keep warm under the eye of volunteers trained to prevent overdoses.

On Saturday, after the tent was used the previous night for the first time, the activists at Moss Park received a message from the commander of Ontario's Emergency Medical Assistance Team, known as EMAT, that no flames should be used inside the tent. Flames, however, are needed to heat drugs before they can be consumed.

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Zoe Dodd, a lead organizer with the volunteer Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, said they had no choice but to abandon the medical tent and go back to using older tents that lack insulation.

"I don't know if they just don't understand how drugs are prepared. You have to heat up a drug to break down bacteria and the drug itself. I just don't understand how this happened," Ms. Dodd told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. "If they had asked us about our needs, we would have told them."

Because oxygen tanks are stored inside the tents to help with resuscitation procedures, there's a risk posed by an open flame, Health Minister Eric Hoskin's office said on Sunday when asked about the use of the tent. "EMAT strongly advised that use of open flame in the tent could result in a risk to client and worker safety," said Laura Gallant, Dr. Hoskin's spokeswoman. "EMAT did not indicate where injecting should or should not take place."

However, Ms. Dodd said she and other volunteers at Moss Park understood that they were being ordered by the minister's office not to use flames. Despite a visit to the site by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Dr. Hoskins, she said that there had been a lack of communication between the volunteers and Dr. Hoskin's office since the drug-use site started operating in August.

To help the activists, the health ministry is looking into "the procurement of industrial grade appliances like hot plates that would be safe for use in a tent environment," according to Ms. Gallant.

However, Ms. Dodd dismissed the proposal. "People do not use hot plates to heat up their drugs. Just take the tent out, that's not a solution," she said, before adding that they could use the hot plate for tea.

In the nearly three months the site has been operating, volunteers have reversed 85 overdoses and monitored almost 2,000 injections.

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There has been tension at times between harm-reduction activists and the Ontario government. Queen's Park has declined calls to declare the increasing opioid-overdose crisis – which claimed 865 lives in the province last year – an official health emergency.

Citing colder weather, Dr. Hoskins ordered the deployment of provincial resources to the operation last week. The site remains in violation of federal drug laws.

The tent, which measures three by eight metres, was installed Thursday by the medical assistance team – an outfit meant to be deployed to community evacuations or disasters. The tent and its generator are being watched over by provincially funded security guards.

According to Ms. Dodd, the narrow tent is too small to cater to the number of drug users using the overdose-prevention site. She said a better solution as cold weather approaches would be trailers like those used at pop-up injection sites in Calgary and Ottawa.

Even a trailer would be a temporary solution as officials are scrambling to get an indoor legal supervised-injection site approved by Ottawa at a centre across the street from the gritty east-end park.

Dr. Hoskins and Mayor John Tory sent letters to federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor asking for immediate approval of the proposed legal location. Dr. Hoskins has allocated money for the project and has said he hopes federal approval will come in days.

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Video: Toronto opens supervised drug-use site amid concerns over overdoses (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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