Toronto needs safe injection sites, top health official says

Toronto's medical officer of health is urging city councillors to open safe-injection sites as part of the city's drug strategy.

Havens provide hygienic environment for drug users, reduce overdose deaths

The sooner safe-injection sites are made available, the better it will be for drug users and city residents, says Toronto's top health official. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Toronto officials are pushing to bring safe-injection sites to local communities as part of the city's drug strategy.

A report from the city's medical officer of health was released Monday on the health benefits of supervised injection services and steps to implement the services in Toronto.

In the report, the city's top health official is calling for three sites with locations at The Works Needle Exchange Program, the Queen West Community Health Centre and the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. 

Coun. Joe Cressy, left, and Dr. David McKeown say drug users are needlessly dying on Toronto's streets due to overdoses, which peaked at 206 in 2013. (Tyna Poulin/CBC)
The sites provide safe, hygienic environments for people to inject drugs under a nurse's supervision.

"The overdose rates we're seeing in Toronto are the highest annual number to date," Dr. David McKeown said in a statement. 

According to the report the city saw a 41-per-cent increase in reported overdoses from 2004 to 2013. In 2013, 206 people died due to overdoses.

McKeown says more must be done to stop people needlessly dying.

"Conditions currently in Toronto support the need for these health services," he told reporters, adding the sooner these sites are made available, the better it will be for drug users and city residents.

McKeown says research shows the sites save lives, reduce drug overdoses and limit the spread of blood-borne diseases.

Speaking to CBC News Monday, a drug-user who identified himself as "Butch" echoed the sentiment. 

"When you're doing something in a public area that you're not supposed to be — injecting drugs which is everywhere —you're hurrying, which is the biggest thing. And when you hurry it's very easy to overdose, much easier," he said.

'These deaths are preventable'

Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the city's drug strategy panel, says drug use is a city-wide problem, and this idea is aimed at creating safer communities for all. 

"Supervised injection sites are about public health and public safety," he said, adding this initiative has been around elsewhere for 30 years with a track record of success.

The councillor says more people will die from overdoses unless the city takes action. 

"These deaths are preventable," he said. "The sooner we act, the more lives will be saved, the fewer needles will be in our streets. It's time."

At the moment, there are only two safe-injection sites in Canada — both in Vancouver.

Final approval for safe-injection sites rests with the federal government, which must grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Public meetings are being planned in Toronto on safe-injection sites.

A report summarizing community input and further steps for implementing the services in Toronto will be submitted to a July meeting of the city's Board of Health.

Should this city have supervised drug injection sites? Toronto Public Health thinks so. Guest host Helen Mann spoke with Dennis Long, he is the Executive Director of Breakaway Addiction Services in Toronto. 7:00

Below is the Medical Officer of Health's report into safe injection sites. 

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With files from The Canadian Press

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