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Toronto rushes to open interim supervised drug-use sites

The sites will allow drug users to shoot up in the presence of a nurse, and the anti-overdose drug naloxone, pictured, will be on hand in case something goes wrong.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

After a wave of overdose deaths, Toronto public health officials are scrambling to open interim supervised drug-use sites, including one in a harm-reduction clinic near Yonge-Dundas Square that could be operating within days.

The move, announced by the city's medical officer of health on Monday, comes after volunteer front-line workers and activists set up a controversial pop-up supervised drug-use site in an east-end park. The group, calling itself the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, says the city has been dragging its feet in responding to the opioid crisis.

Mayor John Tory and public-health officials have pledged to step up their efforts in recent days as reports of deaths from opioid overdoses made headlines, promising to speed up work on its planned three supervised sites. The sites will allow drug users to shoot up in the presence of a nurse, and the anti-overdose drug naloxone will be on hand in case something goes wrong.

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On Monday, Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, told reporters officials are still working as quickly as they can to get the three permanent sites ready to open this fall. But she said they now hope to open interim sites at the three clinics – The Works at Yonge-Dundas Square, the South Riverdale Community Health Centre and the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre – as soon as possible.

Officials say an interim site at The Works, Toronto Public Health's own clinic, should be ready within a week. It was not clear how soon those at the two independent health centres would open. Dr. de Villa defended the time it was taking the city to open its supervised drug-use sites, saying the clinics need to be retrofitted to ensure safety for both patients and staff.

Unlike the activists running the pop-up tents, who reached a deal for police to take a hands-off approach, the city's temporary sites will operate with the same legal exemptions granted by Ottawa for the permanent sites.

The announcement came after a conference call on Monday morning involving public-health officials, police, Mr. Tory and councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto drug strategy implementation panel and a champion of supervised drug-use sites.

Mr. Cressy said the permanent sites would be open already if it had not taken nine months for federal and provincial approvals and funding, which came through in June.

"I understand that for some activists, they sought to fill a void. And while the city cannot break the law to fill that void, I can't blame the activists for stepping in," Mr. Cressy said. "… The long-term solution is not to have unsanctioned sites in parks, but adequate and sustainable and funded sites throughout the city."

Mr. Tory said he had spoken with the provincial and federal governments on Monday and issued a statement saying opening the interim sites was the right thing to do: "Every overdose death in our city is a tragedy and is preventable."

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The unsanctioned pop-up site in Moss Park, at Queen Street East and Sherbourne Street, is in a neighbourhood well known for drug use and homelessness. At about 5 p.m. on Monday, it was devoid of drug users, as TV reporters interviewed organizers and a half-dozen news trucks lined Queen Street.

But over the weekend, about 40 people used drugs here, activists said. One man had an overdose on Sunday night, they said, but was revived with naloxone even before paramedics arrived.

Activists running the site say they have not decided whether to shut down when the city opens its interim locations. Organizer Zoe Dodd, a harm-reduction worker with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, said all three levels of government have dropped the ball responding to the opioid crisis.

Legal pop-up sites, or even mobile supervised drug-use services that can visit different neighbourhoods, must also become part of the plan, she said.

"Over a year and a half ago, I said we were living in hell," Ms. Dodd said. "… I just feel like we've been abandoned by politicians."

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