Overdose prevention sites are needed in Ontario now!

Ontario is facing the largest and longest public health emergency in recent memory. 1263 people died from an overdose in Ontario last year – more than three people a day. This is an increase of 45% over the 867 people who died unnecessarily in 2016. People who use drugs, community members, and front-line health care workers are struggling to respond to the overdose epidemic without adequate government support.

In the midst of this crisis, the Ontario PC government has paused all funding for new overdose prevention sites and halted the tentative opening of three sites across the province. These sites would provide easy-to-access, life-saving services such as supervised injection, harm reduction supplies, and the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone.

We cannot afford to delay our response to this public health emergency any longer.

Send a message to the Chief Medical Officer of Health to take action for overdose prevention in Ontario now!

 

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Ontario PC Government’s Evidence Review of OPS is Deadly – #3PeopleADay

Overdose Prevention Ottawa strongly condemns the Ontario PC Government’s decision to “pause” the opening of three overdose prevention sites while it reviews evidence on these services. The impact of this decision is being felt across the province, as agencies and communities grapple with the largest and longest public health emergency this province has faced in two decades. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were 3,987 “apparent opioid-related deaths” in 2017, 1263 of these people died in Ontario. That means that more than three people are dying from overdose every day in this province. These numbers indicate a dramatic and heartbreaking increase in preventable deaths from an overdose compared to any year previous. Premier Ford, Minister Elliott, and the rest of the Conservative Caucus, you have blood on your hands.

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The provincial government, who is responsible for providing accessible health care to all Ontarians has tried to justify the suspension by voicing their support for treatment and indicating they are reviewing evidence on how overdose prevention sites save lives.

Justifying the limitation of harm-reduction through support for treatment is an oxymoron. The PC Government has done nothing to promote or fund the expansion of treatment services, nor does this approach represent an understanding of the health and social services system. Harm-reduction and treatment programs work in tandem, not in opposition. To present them as competing approaches is manipulative, ignorant, and divisive as it forces programs with already small budgets to fight for small scraps of money. Furthermore, it demonstrates a paternalistic assumption that people who use drugs need to be saved. Access to a broad spectrum of responses during this crisis is a matter of political will, not budget lines. If the Ford administration is so committed to the provision of treatment services, they must ensure people are alive to access care.  Harm-reduction services are essential because people survive a system of prohibition that is killing them. Additionally, harm-reduction is part of the continuum of care for people who are interested in seeking treatment.

The review and pause ordered by Minister Elliott is a fatal waste of time given the current context of the overdose crisis. The empirical basis of data in support of harm reduction services that provide a space for people to use has been well-established. This evidence has displayed a reduction in mortality rates, increased access to healthcare, reduction in healthcare costs, no correlation to crime or initiation of drug use, and safer consumption practices. To learn about the overdose prevention site we operated in Ottawa last year, read our summary report, in which we demonstrate the need for better access to harm reduction services.

The stance of the Ontario government represents a troubling shift that many of us have seen before: a message of punishment instead of support to people who use drugs and frontline workers who have been carrying the brunt of this crisis. Once again, we will be left alone with few resources to respond to this crisis.

This attack on harm reduction by the PC Government is part of a series of attacks on our poor, racialized, trans, and queer communities. Including the cancellation of the basic income pilot project, the attack on social assistance, the implementation of an outdated sex education curriculum, the exclusion of Indigenous content into the curriculum, and the suspension of environmental programs.

Supervised consumption services, including overdose prevention sites, are essential life-saving healthcare services. However, so long as the War on Drugs continues, these services are a drop in the bucket. The drug supply is tainted as a result of prohibition and because people cannot get the drugs they need from a reliable and safe source. Due to fear of criminalization, people rarely call 9-1-1 when they witness an overdose and fear seeking medical support because of the judgment and stigma they face from a system that tells them they are criminals. The War on Drugs makes people outsiders in the very communities they live in.

With these developments, this new administration is making it clear that the century-long War on People Who Use Drugs will be further entrenched over the next four years, and those we love and work with will be further punished, made outlaws, and outsiders by this system. Instead of carrying out proven pathways for dignity and life, Doug and his crew are turning back to a dark age of indifference and ignorance.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa applauds the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society for once again stepping up in the midst of this crisis to save lives by opening the Parkdale OPS, while every level of government sits idly by with health and social service agencies.

We call on every Ontarian to express their collective outrage at the PC Government’s violent decisions. This is not a time for our supporters in public health, health, and social services agencies, the federal government, or municipalities to stay quiet. We must collectively call out these deadly politics. We call on you to work together with people who use drugs and community groups doing this important work to ensure a basic level of safety when faced by a provincial government that refuses to recognize our right to lifesaving healthcare services.

OPO advocates for a policy of police non-attendance at overdose calls for Emergency Medical Services in Ottawa

People who use drugs often delay or avoid calling Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for medical intervention when an overdose happens due to fear that police will also attend the call. Recent efforts to encourage calls to EMS (for example the Good Samaritan Act) have not been effective. The Vancouver Police Department has had a policy of police non-attendance at non-fatal overdoses since 2006. We call for the creation and implementation of evidence-based guidelines for Ottawa Police Services to increase access to EMS for people experiencing an overdose by limiting attendance of members at overdoses.

Earlier this month, we contacted the Ottawa Police Services Board to present this policy proposal at their upcoming meeting. The Ottawa Police Services Board is supposed to be an independent body that represents community interests. When the Board Executive Director received our proposal, she promptly shared it with an Ottawa Police Services member along with the personal contact information of the OPO organizer who submitted the application. In doing so, the Board is supporting the surveillance of community groups by Ottawa Police Services, not operating independently.

Several days after the Board agenda meeting was posted, the Chair of the Board sent the following email the OPO. The Chief of Police was not cc’d on the email.

 

Overdose Prevention Ottawa Summary Report

In 2017, we opened Ottawa’s first safer consumption space at 307 St. Patrick Street. This report provides a brief overview of our service delivery, timeline of actions, our impact through quotes from our guests and community members and the ongoing harm reduction needs in Ottawa, calling on the need to end prohibition in order to address the overdose emergency.

Read our summary report here.

 

“We don’t have a space to go:” Neglect of Safer Inhalation Services in Ottawa

Overdose Prevention Ottawa’s (OPO) service was an essential harm reduction measure because it saved lives through a safe and inclusive space. OPO is the only harm reduction service in Ottawa’s history to provide a space where people who consume through smoking were safe from interpersonal and police violence and could access warm shelter from freezing weather. We are distraught to hear from our guests that their needs are not being met. 

“Put up a tent somewhere and we will go…I’m not picky, I just want somewhere that is safe. I loved that OPO provided a smoking area. It was fun and comfortable. Now, we don’t have a space to go.” – OPO inhalation tent guest. 

We feared this would happen when we closed our tents on November 9th, but hopeful that our service and advocacy had transformed the landscape of harm reduction in Ottawa and other spaces would provide for the needs of our guests. In the last month, Ontario has released its guide for the operation of an overdose prevention site (OPS)  and  began accepting applications. This guide explicitly refuses to allow inhalation services at OPS.

Click here to read OPO’s statement on the neglect and need for safer inhalation services in Ottawa. 

OPO Condemns Recent Drug War Violence on Lowertown Community

On December 4th, 2017, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) publicly announced that they had conducted the first wave of arrests for “Project Mitigate,” a two-month operation in the downtown core. Seven individuals were arrested in this wave, 21 individuals have been identified. In the midst of an overdose epidemic, while other police departments refer people to harm reduction services, OPS police are proud to announce that they arrest them.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa (OPO) strongly condemns this initiative and the criminalization of people who use drugs.   

This operation functioned unanimously to target members of our community who are homeless, use drugs, reside in shelters, and are amongst the most marginalized individuals in our community. Reverberating from this operation, people who are most at risk of death from overdose are criminalized, traumatized, and fearful of accessing life-saving health services.

As is demonstrated time and time again, coercive police actions aggravate public health issues and result in the compromised safety of the whole neighborhood. When someone is ripped from the community through a sting operation such as this one, trusted networks are disrupted and the violence and harm of the police actions reverberate through the drug using community.

Project Mitigate removed trusted members of the community from the streets who have lived and supported their community for an extended period of time. It is their consistent neighbourly presence and undisrupted familiarity that is essential to community safety and the health of people who are both regular suppliers and users of substances.  Consistent street-level sellers care about to whom they are selling, the substance potency and advise their consumers accordingly. Consistency in supply and in relationships within the drug using community is essential to survival.  

We know, from our front line work in this neighbourhood, that these very individuals are in fact active naloxone administrators, educators and advocates, who have saved many lives on the very block they were arrested. They have done more to comfort those struggling with addictions and homelessness, or combat lost lives and overdoses during this emergency than certain people who hide behind the guise of a community group, police or politicians have in their entire careers.

Street-level violence will increase as a result of this action. Drug sellers, often people who are themselves addicted to and paid in drugs, will compete for new turf. Additionally, people who use drugs are forced to seek out a new source for the substances they are dependent upon. This process is fraught with insecurity, exploitation, violence, and results in greater risk of death from poisoning. Furthermore, the disruption of drug markets does not result in a reduction of drug supply, nor a decrease in drug use. What these sting operations do accomplish is traumatizing, harming and putting at risk the community of individuals involved in the bottom of the chain of the drug market. Criminalization is not a means of making our community and streets safer, despite police and politician claims.

OPS and the routinely cowardly Mathew Fleury try to portray these people as criminals and vilify them as dangers to society, demonstrating their disconnection with the community.

Contrary to claims of escalating drug market violence, the only thing that has changed recently in Lowertown is the reinvigoration of anti-harm reduction actions, hate mongering and profiling by a few select people of community members who are living in poverty and use drugs. 

As witnessed from the sheer hate and violence experienced by OPO volunteers and guests during our operation at 307 St. Patrick Street, the very individuals who harassed us, have now taken it upon themselves to relentlessly profile and photograph people who are accessing services at the trailer. This hate has led to the heightened police presence as well as police targeting and criminalization of people who use drugs in the area.

Unfortunately, Project Mitigate is no anomaly.  When it comes to OPS’ response to poverty drug trade, this operation follows predictable police practice of profiling and criminalizing street-involved drug users who are surviving.

Past OPS busts have proven to traumatize and harm members of the community. The notorious “Operation Fire Cracker” of June 2012 (a supposed five-month investigation) was portrayed by Police Chief Bordeleau as an “outstanding” and “successful” practice.  In reality, over 109 individuals (mainly people of colour and shelter residents) were arrested, and charged for a variety of petty crimes and charges, for violations like possession, panhandling, and expectorating, and a handful of other Safe Streets Act violations.  The total value of street drugs seized per person worked out to pennies.  This waste of resources and the obvious ineptitude of such actions result in severe trauma on a resilient population that is already relentlessly bombarded by prohibition, discrimination, oppression, poverty and criminalization in their day to day lives.

The war on drugs is a war on people and it must end.  It is a costly war that fails to reduce drug use and has led to many despicable consequences such as overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who use drugs, prison over-crowding, severe human rights violations, and an exacerbation of stigma, marginalization, violence and corruption.  As practitioners of harm reduction delivering front-line service, we will work with our community to reduce the harms of this war and bring it to an end.