Safe supply sites are set to open in Toronto for the first time — a shift that comes amid a worsening opioid overdose crisis, thanks to new funding from the federal government.
On Thursday, local MPs announced nearly $1.6 million in funds for harm-reduction efforts in the city, with close to $600,000 earmarked for a safer supply pilot project through a Parkdale-based organization.
The goal? Providing easier access to prescription opioids for drug users through existing community agencies, and potentially preventing deaths.
The announcement follows months of rising overdose deaths. In July alone, there were 27 suspected fatal opioid overdoses reported by Toronto paramedics, a grim new record for the city, and hinting at several issues flagged by harm reduction advocates:
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, drug users are further isolated, and the illegal supply has grown more toxic thanks to broken supply chains.
Now, with safe supply sites aiming to prevent more deaths, here’s how that process will actually work.
What are safe supply sites?
Safe supply sites are facilities that help drug users gain access to legal prescription versions of drugs that are often purchased illegally and potentially contain toxic substances.
In some cases, that could include a whole spectrum of drugs, from hallucinogens like MDMA and LSD to heroin and other opioids.
In Toronto, this federally-funded project will be focusing on prescription opioids.
Who’s operating the Toronto sites?
The new funding includes more than $582,000 for a 10-month emergency safe-supply pilot project led by the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, a west-end centre that already works with drug users.
“It will provide pharmaceutical-grade medication to people experiencing severe opioid use disorder and connect
patients with important health and social services, including treatment, which may be more difficult to
access during the COVID-19 outbreak,” according to federal officials in a news release.
That health centre hopes to operate two sites, while a coalition of east-end agencies aims to operate several more — all of which will be run through existing bricks-and-mortar facilities and community outreach programs.
How will they work?
The sites will focus on agencies’ existing clients, not the broader public. Those drug users will be able to gain prescriptions for hydromorphone tablets — a type of opioid — that they can pick up at a pharmacy, then take orally or inject.
Angela Robertson, executive director of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, said it’s a drug covered by the Ontario Drug Benefit program, so the majority of their clients who are on Ontario Works or disability support won’t have to pay when picking up the prescriptions.
The new safe supply sites run by the Parkdale team will be operated alongside other wraparound services, giving drug users additional supports, according to federal officials, including a “harm reduction drop-in program, evidence-based information, supplies, food and referrals to other service providers.”
Will this fix the opioid crisis?
Critics warn dispensing drugs this way could actually worsen the opioid overdose crisis.
“Activists and drug policy leaders, in their zeal to undermine the previous ‘war on drugs’ or the criminal justice approach to addiction, are unwittingly creating a prison system of their own: a mental prison of perpetual, state-sponsored drug use,” argued McMaster University psychiatry resident Jeremy Devine in the July issue of Policy Options, as CBC News previously reported.
And governments have long been hesitant to embark on safer supply initiatives — including the current Ontario government, which has held off on backing these kinds of sites.
But harm reduction advocates, and a growing number of government officials at various levels, argue these programs can save lives.
“We are building a more humane, a more dignified, a more evidence- and health-informed approach to drug use,” said Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto’s board of health.
Toronto resident Akia Munga, who is both a drug user and advocate, stressed that drug users often face discrimination and roadblocks when trying to gain access to legal drugs through the traditional medical system, and said safer supply programs can meet those needs with less judgment.
“It changes the way that your day looks. It changes the way that you use. It gives you options — it allows you to choose between an illicit supply, and something you don’t know, and allows you to use something that’s prescription-grade and tested,” Munga explained.
What are the next steps?
After this pilot project, it’s not yet clear if there will be further injections of federal funding support.
That’s worrisome for advocates who maintain this new cash already came too late.
“Many of these deaths, these thousands of deaths, could’ve been prevented by faster action,” said Jason Altenberg, CEO of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, one of the east-end organizations launching new sites.
Others like Munga also say the current safe supply setup doesn’t go far enough, and needs to be expanded to a broad array of drugs beyond lower-dose hydromorphone — a concern highlighted by drug users in B.C., where safer supply programs have existed for months but aren’t always meeting the needs of people struggling with addiction.
Some advocates and medical professionals are also calling for the eventual decriminalization and regulation of all drugs for personal use.