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Group plans to open unsanctioned overdose prevention site in Toronto neighbourhood

Last Updated Aug 20, 2018 at 4:20 pm EST

TORONTO – An advocacy group says it plans to open an unsanctioned overdose prevention site in an area of Toronto that has recently been plagued by overdose deaths.

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society says the decision to operate out of tents in a park in the Parkdale neighbourhood follows the provincial government’s decision to put the opening of a sanctioned site in the area on hold.

Health Minister Christine Elliott announced last week that sites set to open in Thunder Bay, Ont., St. Catharines, Ont., and Toronto were being paused while the government conducts a review to determine if such facilities will continue to operate in the province.

The Toronto prevention site was scheduled to open Aug. 13 in Parkdale, where police have said seven fatal overdoses occurred during a recent 12-day period.

Investigators said the deaths were likely linked to the opioids fentanyl and carfentanil — synthetic painkillers far more potent than heroin.

A spokeswoman for Elliott says the ministry is requiring any planned overdose prevention sites that are not yet open to delay their operations while the latest data and evidence is reviewed.

“We fully expect all sites to comply with the directive from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care,” Hayley Chazan said Monday in an email.

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society said it would open the unsanctioned prevention site on Monday.

“We are in the midst of a public health crisis and we will not allow lifesaving services to be paused while Parkdale community members are dying,” the group’s Molly Bannerman said in a release.

The group also called on the provincial government to immediately allow the three paused prevention sites to open, and asked for funding to increase for currently operating sites.

“While overdose prevention sites alone will not solve the current crisis, they are a crucial element of a wide range of services that are necessary to keep people who use drugs safe,” it said.

A spokesman for Toronto’s mayor said John Tory supports supervised injection sites and overdose prevention sites, but not in public parks.

“Mayor Tory has consistently stated that a public park is not a suitable place for this type of facility,” Don Peat said in an email, adding that the mayor has called on the provincial government to expedite its review so sites can be opened as planned.

“There should be no need for a site such as this in a park.”

Toronto Public Health, which operates a supervised injection site in downtown Toronto, said it had no comment on the advocacy group’s plan.

Overdose prevention sites are approved by the province and are temporary facilities set up to address an immediate need in a community, while safe injection sites are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a more extensive application process.

Statistics Canada data shows that in the first six months of 2017, there were 1,460 opioid-related deaths in the country and that count is expected to rise as data becomes available.