Ottawa

Decision to halt overdose prevention sites 'horrifying,' advocates say

People who work to keep drug users in Ottawa from overdosing are harshly criticizing the Ontario government's decision to halt approvals of overdose prevention sites.

Ottawa group had hoped to open mobile site

James Hutt, an organizer with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, called the province's decision to halt the approval process for new sites 'horrifying.' His group had been hoping to launch a mobile site in the city. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

People who work to keep drug users in Ottawa safe are harshly criticizing the Ontario government's decision to halt approvals of overdose prevention sites.

In a letter sent late Friday to local health integration networks and health units across the province, Roselle Martino, assistant deputy minister of the population and public health division, said the halting of the approval process was effective immediately.

The decision means that for now, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care will not give the green light to new overdose prevention sites and is officially pausing the process for sites that are not open yet.

People who work trying to prevent overdoses say prevention sites are needed to save lives. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Overdose prevention sites (OPS) are temporary harm-reduction sites where the injection of drugs is supervised. They also allow drug users to access harm reduction supplies and dispose of used needles and other drug paraphenalia.

Some sites also offer supervised oral and intranasal drug consumption, as well as provide test strips to check drugs for fentanyl. 

'The overdose crisis is getting worse'

Overdose Prevention Ottawa had applied to start a mobile overdose prevention site in the city before the recent provincial election.

James Hutt, an organizer with the group, called the decision to halt the approval process "horrifying."

We are in the middle of a crisis. We know that the overdose crisis is getting worse.- James Hutt , Overdose Prevention Ottawa

"It's hard to underestimate just how harmful this is," Hutt said on Sunday.

"The Conservatives are taking away one of the few resources that are keeping people alive in the middle of a public health emergency."

Overdose Prevention Ottawa ran a pop-up site last year in Lowertown's Raphael Brunet Park, and Hutt said the group would continue to push the government to reverse its decision.

"We are in the middle of a crisis. We know that the overdose crisis is getting worse," said Hutt. 

Marilou Gagnon lives in Victoria now, but recently worked in Ottawa for a decade as an associate professor of nursing and helped Overdose Prevention Ottawa run its pop-up clinic in Lowertown last year. (James Park)

'Going against science'

According to Friday's letter, Health Minister Christine Elliott will be "reviewing the evidence and speaking to experts to ensure that any continuation of supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites are going to introduce people into rehabilitation and ensure people struggling with addiction will get the help they need."

Marilou Gagnon, president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, said about three people die a day in Ontario from overdoses. 

"I'm extremely concerned … We're not in a position for any government to actually cease funding for a life-saving service," said Gagnon, who also helped organize last fall's pop-up site before moving to British Columbia.

The science is very clear that [overdose prevention sites] do work, and we've known this since the  80s .- Marilou   Gagnon

An associate professor of nursing who worked for about a decade in Ottawa, Gagnon said she believed the decision to halt approvals was an ideological one — and the so-called review is the province's attempt to rationalize it.

"It's a complete disaster, and I do worry about people on the ground. I worry about our community and people using drugs who [could die] because of that decision," said Gagnon. 

Gagnon said she's "extremely concerned about a government going against science." 

"The science is very clear that [overdose prevention sites] do work, and we've known this since the 80s," she said. "So I think we're past the stage of experimenting and testing these services." 

A spokesperson for the health minister told CBC News the review and subsequent recommendations should "happen in short order."

About the Author

Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.