Unsanctioned 'overdose prevention site' to pop up in Ottawa, group says

An organization called Overdose Prevention Ottawa is following the lead of groups in Vancouver and Toronto and will be opening an "overdose prevention site" at a yet-to-be disclosed location in the capital on Friday.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa not saying where it will be set up on Friday

People in support of an 'overdose prevention site' in Ottawa gather by Ottawa City Hall. They say it's a simpler concept than a supervised injection site, which offers more comprehensive services but takes longer to get going. (Reno Patry/CBC)

An organization called Overdose Prevention Ottawa is following the lead of groups in Vancouver and Toronto and will be opening an "overdose prevention site" for people to use drugs at a yet-to-be disclosed location in the capital on Friday.

In an announcement on Thursday morning, the group — which includes people with healthcare experience and experts in working with people who use drugs — said the need is urgent and they can't wait for official government help.

"People are being forced to use in spaces that are unsafe, where they use alone and they don't have access to [the opioid overdose reversing drug] naloxone," said Marilou Gagnon, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

"We can't justify letting people die because of bureaucracy … I don't understand why it would be acceptable for people who use drugs to just tell people to wait and continue to die while we arrange our paperwork.​"

University of Ottawa associate professor Marilou Gagnon says she's realistic about the possibility the site could get shut down, but police in Toronto and Vancouver have not chosen to do that. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Peer support worker Robert Jamison said Ottawa is seeing a "super big epidemic" of drug overdoses and this service would be used by concerned drug users.

He said he suspects the powerful opioid carfentanyl may have made its way to the city, including one block in Chinatown where he knows of three people who have overdosed in the last month.

"I gave CPR to one guy, I think it was his 18th birthday, he didn't make it. A couple of days later we had another young man drop outside the Somerset West clinic, we had naloxone, we had nurses nearby, his heart started beating. That was an awesome feeling to have that support there," he said.

"A couple of days later we had a lady in our building who didn't tell anyone she was using. She died of a fentanyl overdose and a 12-month-old baby was there all alone while she was passed away in the other room … that's the kind of stuff we want to avoid."

Robert Jamison, a peer support worker who helps drug users try to address their addiction, said they've been telling people there's an overdose crisis coming but he didn't expect the troubles he's seen in Ottawa over the last few months. (Reno Patry/CBC)

Gagnon said the tent would have a table, chairs and naloxone.

It would be staffed by three people who could act in case of an emergency and help support people who came there to use.

She said they're keeping the location a secret until it's ready because they want the focus to be on what and why they're doing, not where, saying the sites haven't been a problem in other cities.

"I'm quite optimistic about people's response. I think there's a lot more compassion and understanding out there than people think," she said.

The so-called pop-up supervised consumption sites in other cities typically have enough room for a handful of people to use drugs or learn how to use opioid overdose antidote naloxone. (John Lesavage/CBC)

She said they're ready to adapt their hours based on need and left open the possibilities the tent could be moved, that other tents could open or that it could stay open once a Sandy Hill supervised injection site opens as soon as October.

"The goal is to have co-existing models," she said.

Politics vs. health

The federal government has to approve exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow those sites to operate legally.

Toronto's pop-up site opened earlier this month inside a tent at a park in the city's downtown, with 15 people dropping by on its first day in operation to consume drugs under supervision.

Toronto police observed as organizers set up the site, but refrained from intervening because to what one officer called the "absolute professionalism" of the people running it.

Ottawa police declined to comment ahead of Overdose Prevention Ottawa's official announcement. Ottawa Public Health said in a statement that it had not been consulted as part of the initiative.

With files from Andrew Foote