London New Democrats worry about fate of supervised consumption sites, but health unit CEO remains unruffled

NDP MPPs Peggy Sattler and Terence Kernaghan say they want the province to extend London's temporary overdose prevention site, which has provincial approval until Aug. 15.

MPPs Peggy Sattler and Terence Kernaghan want PCs to extend the temporary overdose prevention site

Health minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that her government will review supervised consumption sites to see if they're "of merit to the people of Ontario." (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

London's NDP MPPs say they're skeptical about health minister Christine Elliott's promise to review the evidence on supervised consumption sites before granting a provincial stamp of approval. 

London North Centre MPP Terence Kernaghan said the PCs don't need to spend time digging for information, because it's already publicly available. He cited the seven averted overdose deaths that have taken place at London's temporary overdose prevention site since it opened in February. 

"While the minister of health says the government will look at the evidence, it's already available. She stated that they would listen to the experts — they're already as well," said Kernaghan. "I would also highly recommend that she speak with those who have lived experience — they're available too."

NDP MPP Peggy Sattler says she wants to know when the province will make a decision about the fate of London's temporary overdose prevention site. (Colin Butler)

Kernaghan's London West counterpart Peggy Sattler echoed his words. She said overdose prevention sites have been a point of discussion for provincial health ministers "for some time."

"This is not something that just emerged as an issue without previous awareness," said Sattler.

"The work should have been done already, the analysis should have been done," she said, adding that she's visited London's temporary overdose prevention site and thinks it's a good way to build relationships between drug users and service providers.

Sattler said she trusts the PCs will ultimately make a decision based on scientific evidence, but is troubled by the lack of a timeline. Provincial funding and permission for London's temporary overdose prevention site expire Aug. 15 — just three weeks away.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Christine Elliott said the minister is "aware of the timelines associated with this topic," and is keen to learn more about supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites. 

"Minister Elliott has also been clear that this government supports the development of a comprehensive and connected mental health and addictions strategy in Ontario with its announcement of $3.8 billion of new investments," the statement reads.

Dr. Chris Mackie, the city's chief medical officer of health, says London's temporary overdose prevention site has averted seven overdose deaths since it opened this winter. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Health unit CEO says evidence holds up to scrutiny

Still, London's chief medical officer Chris Mackie remains unruffled by the back-and-forth.

Despite premier Doug Ford's past remarks about supervised consumption sites, Mackie says he's confident the new government will make a decision based on scientific evidence, which he says points in favour of the supervised consumption sites.

"This type of service is crucial for those hardest to reach clients to get them into addictions treatment," said Mackie, adding that research from Vancouver's Insite shows the sites can also reduce the spread of HIV and discarded needles.

Even when evidence is present, Mackie said he understands it can be difficult for people to wrap their heads around the idea of allowing drug use, even when it's in a controlled environment. 

"From a culture where we have often looked at drugs in a shame and blame and marginalization sort of way … It is a big shift in mindset, and I understand why it takes some time to get there," he said.

Mackie said the "lines of communication are open" between the health unit and the province.

The Middlesex London Health Unit has sent data about London's temporary overdose prevention site to the provincial government, and has also invited Christine Elliott to tour the London site.

In case the province doesn't make its decision in time, Mackie has also called on the federal government to approve 186 King St. as an interim supervised consumption site. 

For that to happen, Health Canada would first have to approve one or both of London's proposed permanent safe consumption sites. 

Mackie said Health Canada is reviewing the health unit's applications and is moving toward a "decision phase."

"I don't exactly know what happens within that decision phase, but they have indicated they're hoping for a decision within the next few weeks," he said.