Injecting reason into the safe injection site debate

A report released last week that recommended setting up supervised drug injection facilities here seems to have faded from the public discourse in a flash.

While the Toronto And Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment (TOSCA) Study aimed to start a discussion about a harm reduction strategy for vulnerable cocaine and opiate addicts, there’s little indication that’s a conversation our leaders and law enforcers are prepared to have.

The ink had barely dried on the four-year-long study, sponsored by St. Michael’s Hospital and U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, when key officials dismissed its findings out of hand.

Despite the authors’ assertion that three T.O. safe injection sites would reduce overdose deaths and HIV and hepatitis C infections, Health Minister Deb Matthews quickly declared that the province has no intention of pursuing the matter at this time because “experts continue to be divided on [their] value.”

Deputy mayor Doug Holyday didn’t waste any time either telling reporters he had “some doubts as to whether there is real benefit and whether you don’t just attract more problems,” and urged yet more study.

And Chief Bill Blair chimed in that while Vancouver has had such a facility for some years, “issues have arisen there. I don’t know of any place in Toronto where [a site] couldn’t have a significant negative impact on communities.”

Blair’s spokesperson, Mark Pugash, when asked for elaboration, says only that the chief has “had regular discussions with senior police leaders in Canada, the States and western Europe. Based on that, this is not something he can support.”

But Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Constable Lindsey Houghton tells NOW the site there, the only one in Canada, “has not had a measurable effect on the increase or decrease of crime or disorder. The VPD is supportive of any legal measure that might have a chance at reducing the drug problem” in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside.

Ahmed Bayoumi of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital, who led the study along with U of T’s Carol Strike, isn’t surprised by the negative reaction. But he dismisses charges that such facilities jeopardize quality of life for neighbours. His research found the opposite: in cities like Vancouver and Sydney, Australia, safe injection sites have led to less visible drug use and lower crime rates.

“Contrary to what most people think, the sites generally have had a positive community impact rather than negative,” he says. “They generally operate as very good neighbours.”

While officialdom balks at these findings, some closer to the front lines are taking the report seriously.

A statement from Toronto Public Health, which would likely be involved in running such a facility, says the agency “is supportive of the use of supervised consumption sites as an effective intervention in some circumstances,” and it’s reviewing the report.

Councillor Gord Perks, who represents Parkdale, an area seen by many as the logical place for a supervised program, says council needs to be open to the study’s findings.

“It’s very clear that these facilities would save lives, reduce health care costs and reduce harm to our neighbourhoods,” he says. “So I think that from a good policy perspective but also from a moral perspective we have to try to find a way to meet the recommendations.”

But if higher-ups continue to obstruct implementation, Perks predicts it’s “going to be a very steep hill to climb.”

While key players line up in opposition, Bayoumi suggests Vancouver, with its public support for harm reduction, should serve as both a model and a warning.

“It is important to recognize that the Downtown Eastside is a pretty unique situation,” he says. “The issues with drug use in that neighbourhood have gotten so bad that I think everybody realized something different had to be done.”

If his assessment is correct, Toronto’s drug problem may have to get a lot worse before our leaders are willing to engage in an open discussion about remedying it. |

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