Toronto

Vancouver's unsanctioned injection sites offer ideas for Toronto

Dozens of drug users, including at least one who suffered a severe overdose, have now used a pop-up supervised-injection site in downtown Toronto’s Moss Park, a harm reduction worker says. And if the experiences of similar unregulated injection sites in Vancouver are any indication, that number will climb.

West coast harm-reduction advocates urge Toronto to act fast to prevent deaths

Toronto's pop-up overdose prevention site has attracted dozens of drug users since opening last weekend. In Vancouver, similar sites help upwards of 700 people per day. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Dozens of drug users, including at least one who suffered a severe overdose, have now used a pop-up supervised-injection site in downtown Toronto's Moss Park, harm reduction worker Matt Johnson says.

And if the experiences of similar unregulated injection sites in Vancouver are any indication, that number will climb.

Sarah Blyth, of the Vancouver Overdose Society, says opening the first space last year was a bold move but it has paid off. The organization now treats upwards of 700 people per day at six sites — keeping four workers ready at all times in case of an overdose. Nobody has died at one.

We're not taking this crisis seriously enough all throughout Canada – including Toronto.- Sarah Blyth, Vancouver Overdose Society

"It's such an overwhelming sense of, you know, that we're doing the right thing," Blyth told CBC Toronto.  

She's hoping the city and Toronto police will let the pop-up site stay, even when Toronto Public Health (TPH) opens its three official sites. On Monday afternoon, TPH announced it's racing to open a temporary supervised injection as early as this week.

"Unfortunately we're not taking this crisis seriously enough all throughout Canada — including Toronto. And so people are having to step up," she said.

Toronto warned to act now

In addition to keeping drug users alive, Blyth says volunteers make sure to clean up the syringes left around their site. (CBC)

Grim statistics from B.C.'s coroner show an average of four people per day die from drug overdoses in the province. Toronto's rates are far lower, but still worrisome. At the end of July, four people were found dead over a three-day span.

Chris Buchner, the clinical director of communicable diseases and harm reduction for Fraser Health, a regional healthcare provider in B.C., warns Toronto it will need to do more than opening safe-injection sites to prevent further deaths. However, the sites do offer an additional benefit beyond saving lives.

"People who did use the supervised injection site were significantly more likely to take the first steps into addiction treatment," said Buchner, who helped launched the official supervised injection site, Insite.

With the risks and benefits clear, safe-injection sites like Blyth's are now getting some government funding — which she says go toward paying honorariums to workers.

A video recently shared by the organization shows how intense that work can be, as one woman's testimonial about working at the site is interrupted by a man's overdose.

[Warning: video contains graphic images of someone overdosing before being revived.]

In Toronto, harm reduction worker Matt Johnson says 15 people used the pop-up site on Saturday, its first day, and 25 used it on Sunday.

At least one person has suffered a severe overdose inside the tent, Johnson said, but was revived by volunteers by the time paramedics arrived on the scene.

"If he were alone, he would not have made it," Johnson said.

The harm reduction workers there have also distributed more than 150 naloxone kits to people worried about overdosing.

Johnson says the advocates' dealings with paramedics and police — who tweeted Monday that anyone overdosing should not hesitate to call 911 — have been positive.

"They're seeing the same thing we are. They know something needs to be done to help," he said.

About the Author

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.