Safe-injection sites should open in Toronto, top health official to recommend

The city's medical officer of health will table a report on Monday calling on the city council to set up safe-injection sites to combat the growing number of drug overdose deaths in Toronto.

'People are dying in our streets today,' says chair of city's drug strategy panel

Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011. Toronto's medical officer of health wants the city to become the second in Canada to adopt this harm-reduction strategy. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The city's medical officer of health will table a report on Monday calling on the city council to set up safe-injection sites to combat the growing number of drug overdose deaths in Toronto. 

If the city moves forward with Dr. David McKeown's recommendations — announced Saturday in a statement from Toronto Public Health — Toronto could become the second city in Canada to approve clinics where intravenous drug use is supervised by health-care officials.

"That's good news for the health and safety of not only the people who use drugs, but the communities where drugs are found,"  Coun. Joe Cressy, who chairs the city's drug strategy panel, told CBC News.  
Coun. Joe Cressy says Toronto needs safe-injection sites as soon as possible to curb overdose deaths and make communities safer. (CBC)

"It's going to ensure public safety by making sure that we don't have needles in our streets and our parks and our coffee shops," the councillor said.

Cressy and McKeown are to hold a joint news conference about the issue on Monday.  

The InSite facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside became the first safe-injection site in Canada when it opened in 2013. Montreal Mayor Denise Coderre has long been pushing to establish similar sites in his city.

Feasibility studies about the possibility of opening safe-injection sites are also underway in Thunder Bay and London, Ont.

'We need these services yesterday'

The number of overdose deaths in Toronto has risen 41 per cent between 2004 and 2013, peaking at 206 in '13, according the most recent numbers available from Toronto Public Health. 

Research from Vancouver and elsewhere shows such sites are effective in preventing drug overdoses and reducing the risk of disease transmission, Toronto health officials have argued

"Right now, overdose is a critical issue facing our city and, in fact, should be the top public health priority of our city," Cressy said. 

The city already has other harm-reduction strategies in place, including needle exchanges aimed at reducing the spread of HIV and other diseases spread by intravenous drug use. 

Toronto police have not commented on the proposal, but Chief Mark Saunders has previously stated safe-injection sites can be harmful to neighbourhoods. 

John Tory's office said the mayor will not comment on the issue until the report is tabled.

If the proposal is adopted by city council, there will still be more red tape to cut though. Under federal law, safe-injection sites must apply to Health Canada for exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Cressy hopes the city will be able to move forward as quickly as possible.

"People are dying in our streets today," he said. "We need these services yesterday."

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