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.

 

2017 Overdose Prevention Site Statistics

In 2017, Overdose Prevention Ottawa (OPO) opened Ottawa’s first safer consumption space. Here we are presenting our statistics on the number of encounters at our tents each night, and the perceived gender and method of consumption of our guests.

Click here to see the full report.

“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.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa stands in solidarity with those fighting the prison-industrial-complex

Those working in policing, the courts, and sites of confinement are among many within the prison-industrial-complex (PIC) that turn a profit through the criminalization and punishment of populations pushed to the margins in our unceded and unsurrendered communities, province, and country. The war on drugs brings some drug producers, salespersons, and users into conflict with the law unnecessarily and creates more harm to individuals and communities than benefits. The war on drugs is central to Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) actors making money off human misery. Every year in Canada, the PIC devours over $20 billion in funds that could be spent on bettering society by ending poverty, expanding access to education, health and mental health care, housing, and other basic necessities of life. We should be divesting from the PIC and its role in sustaining a flawed, inhumane, unjust, and costly drug prohibition model that is damaging and killing people, both young and old. Consider these Canadian (in)justice trends from 2014-2015:

  • Alleged drug offences accounted for 9.7% of all adult charges by the police.
  • Drug charges accounted for 6.8% of cases before adult courts, with possession allegations accounting for nearly two-thirds of those cases.
  • In cases where people were convicted and sentenced to time in a provincial or territorial prison, it cost an average of $198.50 per day or $72,452.50 per year to incarcerate just one prisoner.    
  • In cases where people are convicted and sentenced to time in a federal penitentiary, it costs an average of $301.94 per day or $110,208.10 per year to incarcerate just one prisoner.    

This is a time of grave injustice. As the municipal government fails to reign in the budget of the Ottawa Police Service, the provincial government pursues an uninformed plan to build a new and bigger jail to replace the Innis Road jail, and the federal government refuses to decriminalize drugs in the midst of an opioid crisis that has taken thousands of lives, Overdose Prevention Ottawa stands in solidarity with all groups – local, national and international – that are fighting the PIC and seeking an end to the war on drugs. We commit to working alongside all those involved in building a more compassionate world where social harm is met with non-violent, collective, healing, and transformative justice.

STATEMENT: OPO transitioning to the second phase of advocacy and service delivery.

It is with heavy hearts that Overdose Prevention Ottawa share that we are closing the service we have provided on the patch of grass located at 307 St. Patrick Street since August 25, 2017. In over two months, we have had 3445 visits, reversed five overdoses with naloxone, and prevented hundreds more through various interventions, including enhanced monitoring, providing a safe space for people to consume drugs, to be able to take their time, and experience connection and belonging within the community.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa provided the first public safe space in our city for people to use drugs, primarily through injection and inhalation. At that time, there were no harm reduction services that provided a space for people to safely consume drugs. We have built relationships of trust with people, the building blocks of healing deep wounds. Every day, our guests tell us that they and their friends are alive because of our services.

In just over two months, we have accomplished much to make our city safer for people who use drugs, to combat stigma and criminalization, and fix some of the many gaps in the healthcare system. For 74 days, we have operated without any support from any level of government. It is only through the tireless efforts of our more than 200 volunteers, and through the donations of thousands of private supporters were we able to stand up where our government had failed so many. It is shameful that so many individuals have had to sacrifice so much to fix that failing. But it is also truly inspiring to see the love, the compassion, and unwavering support of our neighbours in the face of this emergency. We have created a powerful community of advocates and we will continue to use that strength to both demand and actively build a better city for everyone.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa has been successful in our mission to bring accessible, safer consumption services to the area of our city most affected by the overdose emergency. Thanks to our efforts, there are now two supervised injection services operating within two blocks of our site. Although they operate in distinct ways from Overdose Prevention Ottawa, their openings warrant a reconsideration of the need for our services in Lowertown. Through our dedicated service and our advocacy, we have forced harm reduction service providers to respond, and have helped pave a path towards a more equitable healthcare system, one that treats drug users with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Now, we are going to redirect our efforts to address other failings in the healthcare system throughout Ottawa. For that reason, we will be closing the 307 St. Patrick overdose prevention site this week and transitioning to the second phase of advocacy and service delivery. We will continue to monitor and respond to the needs for overdose prevention services throughout the City of Ottawa and take steps to ensure the health and well-being of those who are most at risk of preventable death.

Along with our guests and volunteers, we are angry and ashamed by the responses by each level of government to this ongoing emergency. Overdose Prevention Ottawa operated its service less than two kilometres from Parliament Hill and City Hall, where local and national decisions that, for many people, can mean life or death. Despite that proximity, governments continue to operate largely according to business as usual. Particularly reprehensible are the actions of Mayor Jim Watson, Councillor Mathieu Fleury, and Minister of Health Dr. Eric Hoskins who profess to take action to address the overdose emergency in one breath and then deny services to people who use drugs in another. Canada is facing a preventable health emergency that is driven by prohibition, criminalization, and stigma. We will continue to demand action from federal, provincial, and municipal governments.  These same levels of government and harm reduction organizations have benefitted from Overdose Prevention Ottawa providing this service and doing their work for them.

Significant changes have taken place over the past two months, but much still needs to be done. Safer inhalation services, like the kind provided by Overdose Prevention Ottawa, are an essential and currently lacking service in this city. We have long known that the government and health and social services abandon and criminalize people who use drugs. Overdose Prevention Ottawa stepped in to care for the community. Since these structures have not provided meaningful support for Overdose Prevention Ottawa. They are again abandoning people who use drugs.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa is not going anywhere. We will remain engaged in overdose prevention work and advocacy. We have thrived because of this shared understanding from our supporters and the community. For that, Overdose Prevention Ottawa is forever grateful. We have made long-lasting connections, saved lives and made history together. And we will continue to do so, together.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa

High Winds Not the Only Thing Preventing Access to Life-Saving Services

The high winds mean OPO cannot provide essential health and life-saving services again today. We have notified Ottawa Public Health & Ottawa Inner City Health and will have some volunteers at Raphael Brunet park from 6-9pm.

The cause of this service gap is not the inclement weather, however.

The lack of government support is the real reason for the gaps in overdose prevention services in this city.

Without infrastructure and resource support, our volunteer-based tents cannot open. For the past 67 days, offers of more secure infrastructure could have been made and were not.

There are zero inhalation services in this city meaning our guests have nowhere to go tonight.

Nowhere.

And while we intend to refer guests to OPH’s SIS nearby (179 Clarence St), their limited space (2 injection booths) means many others will also have nowhere to go tonight.

Nowhere.

While buildings sit idle, our beloved guests are left without our support, using without OPO tonight.

This means that our guests may be without naloxone or a friend nearby which can be fatal if an overdose occurs.

To prevent criminalization, our guests may use in a rushed manner and may use more at once than desired in order to not have substance on their person. This can increase the risk for infections and risk of overdose.

Our guests will not be greeted by our volunteers with warm hugs, help with referrals to detox and support services, or non-judgement tonight. They will not have their regular safe space to go get advice or share a laugh. Evidence states the opposite to addiction is connection. Tonight we cannot provide connections or belonging.

The province has not called for a public health emergency which means that exemptions are limited to federal approval. The federal government has taken time to provide these necessary exemptions in Ottawa. Various City of Ottawa staff members have stated that they would be working to ensure a safe indoor location for OPO’s essential health service, and still, we wait.

All levels of government are continuing the deadly war on drug users by refusing to decriminalize all substances.

Instead, our precious guests will be without their place. Again, they will feel abandoned by social services and a government whose purpose should be to help them, including keeping them alive.

While buildings sit idle. While resources could be enhanced. While more could so easily be done.

Instead, we hear silence from our 3 pillars of government.

Again, on our 67th day.

Joint Public Statement on Ottawa’s Overdose Prevention Site

Ottawa’s mayor and city council have voiced support for shutting down the city’s peer-run, life-saving overdose prevention site which has seen more than 1,100 visits since first opening. In the context of Canada’s current, unprecedented overdose epidemic, we believe such services must be maintained, and to close them would be both immoral and potentially life-threatening.

To read the joint public statement on Ottawa’s Overdose Prevention Site, click here.