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Toronto Talks to move Toronto’s illegal Moss Park drug-use site indoors fail

A volunteer places a sign for the pop-up drug-use site at Moss Park in downtown Toronto in this file photo.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Talks to move Toronto's illegal pop-up supervised drug-use site inside a nearby homeless centre have failed, but the harm-reduction activists who have been setting up their tents in an east-end park every evening say they plan to stay put.

The crowdfunded, volunteer-driven Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA) has operated its controversial pop-up site in Moss Park near Sherbourne and Queen Streets since August, with tacit approval from police and city officials amid a growing number of opioid overdose deaths.

The activists behind the site, which allows drug users to shoot up with a nurse and a supply of the anti-opioid drug naloxone on hand, say they have reversed scores of overdoses.

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The city has one legal supervised injection site, which officials rushed to open near Yonge-Dundas Square in the summer after the activists set up in Moss Park. Two more legal clinics are set to open, but not for several weeks.

Many, including Mayor John Tory, have said that while they support the activists' efforts, a city park is not a suitable location. The activists had been in negotiations for weeks with city officials and the nearby Fred Victor centre for the homeless about moving their operation indoors as the nights grow cold.

But on Wednesday, the activists are set to publicly announce they have been told Fred Victor is refusing to host them without an official exemption from federal drug laws, something the activists argue could take months to obtain.

Instead, they plan to keep operating in Moss Park by potentially bringing in a heated trailer as the weather worsens, something they say city officials have said is forbidden. They also argue that operating without a Health Canada exemption allows them to do things a legal site cannot, such as offer a tent where drug-users can also smoke up, rather than only inject.

"We're going to be staying where we are," Matt Johnson, a harm-reduction worker and one of the activists behind the site, said in an interview on Tuesday. "We can't continue in tents, so we'll be doing something else."

Fred Victor's executive director, Mark Aston, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

City councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs the city's drug strategy implementation panel and has been in the middle of the talks, said Fred Victor is now planning to apply for its own exemption from Health Canada to set up a legal supervised drug-use site at its Queen and Jarvis Streets location near Moss Park.

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But Mr. Cressy says Health Canada assured Toronto Public Health officials this week that it could approve an exemption for Fred Victor in as little as two-to-four weeks. (To The Globe, Health Canada would only say that it reviews all applications "as quickly as possible.")

Opening the new legal site at Fred Victor could take still more time, Mr. Cressy said. But he supports allowing the pop-up to operate in Moss Park in the mean time and says the law needs to be changed to allow the city to support pop-up sites in other places.

"When a law is resulting in the unnecessary loss of life, I think it is perfectly understandable that they would break the law, and I support that," Mr. Cressy said.

The breakdown in talks between Fred Victor and the activists comes even as Mr. Johnson says the illegal pop-up has been told it will receive government cash, indirectly through existing agencies. He could not say how much. Mr. Cressy said the city is not allowed to offer funding to the pop-up, but that he supports changing those rules.

In an e-mailed statement, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins called the activists "courageous" and noted the province is supplying them with naloxone and testing kits to detect the presence of the powerful opioid fentanyl in street drugs. He said his staff is working to move the area's supervised drug-use services indoors. His e-mail did not respond directly to a question about funding.

Meanwhile, some local businesses are losing their patience with the site, even though the area is well-known for homelessness and drug use. Some say the site's presence has resulted in more open drug use elsewhere in the neighbourhood and attracted more drug dealers.

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Rob Cesta has run Drift Outfitters and Fly Shop, a fly-fishing store on Queen Street East directly across from Moss Park, for the past two years. He says he supports supervised drug-use sites, but wants the pop-up moved indoors.

"Drug use, public urination, drug deals, violent assault, you name it," Mr. Cesta said. "It's all out there."

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