It’s the biggest health crisis since AIDS, but the opioid epidemic keeps falling victim to bureaucratic indifference

Despite pleas to the PM's office, the burden of responding to an emergency that continues to grow is being left to harm reduction workers and concerned members of the community

Every afternoon at 3:30 pm for the past 82 days (and counting) three tents have been set up in Moss Park to provide safe injection services. And every night at 10 pm the tents have been taken down until the next day. 

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society (TOPS) and Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA) set up the unsanctioned Overdose Prevention Site in August in response to municipal and federal delays in opening up three approved safe injection sites. 

The groups held a press conference at Moss Park on Wednesday afternoon to announce that a plan to move into the Fred Victor Centre for the winter has been put on hold indefinitely, “victim to the same forces of bureaucracy and official indifference that have already contributed to so many preventable deaths,” says Zoe Dodd of TOPS.  

The non-profit, which has been waiting for a federal exemption for the facility, a process which involves police background checks and security protocols that could take months, has apparently received legal advice that it could be held legally liable should someone receiving services die on the premises. 

The province has since stepped in to provide emergency relief, dispatching an Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT) to provide a heated tent, presumably until Fred Victor receives the necessary go-ahead from the feds. 

EMAT Tent Moss Park:Toronto OPS.jpg

Toronto OPS

An Emergency Medical Assistance Team was dispatched by the province to Moss Park Thursday in response to news that a safe injection site set up in the park in August will not be able to move into Fred Victor Centre as planned this winter.

But ultimately, as councillor Joe Cressy has pointed out, we have a flawed federal law and until that’s changed to make approval of safe injection sites less onerous, the burden of responding to an opioid crisis that continues to grow is being left to those closest to the tragedy: harm reduction workers and concerned members of the community. Those, as Cressy says, who have been “willing to stick their necks out,” and risk arrest, to respond to arguably the biggest health crisis since the 80s AIDS epidemic. 

And like AIDS activists before them who stepped up to distribute condoms and clean needles when governments were in denial about that growing epidemic, the effort in Moss Park has been led by 130 or so volunteers, among them people who use drugs, injection drug experts, plus 48 medical volunteers (nurses and nurse practitioners and physicians). They’ve not only given their time, but raised money for the cause.

Without them, the death toll would no doubt be much higher. 

Since the Moss Park pop-up opened in August, 85 overdoses have been stopped or reversed (See numbers below). And the number of suspected opioid overdoses attended by Toronto Paramedic Services has decreased by half. 

Screen Shot Moss Park Overdoses.png

Meanwhile, the number of substance-related emergency room visits from April through early September has increased from 272 to 350. The number of suspected overdoses has also gone up from 45 at the end of the first week in May to 88 during the week ending October 23. 

“If we were not there to provide these interventions,” said Nick Boyce of TOPS at the press conference, “people would be in emergency departments, costing the system thousands of dollars, or they would be dead.”

The presence of the safe injection sites in Moss Park – a move not welcomed by all in the community – has helped shift the discussion around the opioid crisis. The public has by and large accepted the need for such a response. But the public remains ahead of the curve compared to the response of most governments in Canada.

The City of Toronto and province of Ontario have shown their support for volunteer efforts by agreeing not to enforce existing laws. In British Columbia, where the overdose tragedy has hit the hardest, the provincial government has gone further, declaring a public health emergency last year and directing health boards to establish interim services. 

But the feds have shown little courage, despite pleas to the Prime Minister’s office, on the need to recognize the failure of current laws to respond to this emergency. 

Moss Park Safe Injection Site 2.jpg

Samuel Engelking

Money to buy supplies for Moss Park’s Overdose Prevention Site has had to be raised through crowdfunding and private donations.

Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site By The Numbers

1,976 Injections witnessed between August 17 to October 29 at Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site

85 Overdoses stopped or reversed 

3,064 Visits to the inhalation tent 

1,246 Naloxone kits distributed 

130 Volunteers 

$30,000 Money raised for services (entirely through crowdfunding and donations) | @enzodimatteo

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