Ontario is asking the federal government for an extension as it continues to look at the future of safe injection sites.
“We continue to take the ongoing opioid crisis very seriously. I have reviewed the latest data, evidence and current site models, visited various sites and held consultations,” said Health Minister Christine Elliott in a written release Friday. “I am now in the process of finalizing my recommendations.
“This is an important determination that we need to get right; and one that must not be rushed. To that end, we are officially asking the federal government for an extension of Ontario’s Class Exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act while we conclude our review.”
Earlier in the day in Etobicoke, Premier Doug Ford said he expected to announce a final decision “next week.”
The province has been funding a number of sites that hire nurses who supervise users as they inject themselves and then monitor them for signs of overdose or other health issues.
The Health Ministry has since been holding consultations over the past few months with community leaders and those who visit and use such sites.
About one-quarter of the 4,000 people who die each year in Canada from opioid overdose are from Ontario, or an average of about three people each day.
New Democrat MPP Bhutila Karpoche, her party’s mental health and addictions critic, accused the government of unnecessary delay.
“As the Ford government dithers, lives are shattered, families are destroyed, and people die,” said Karpoche, who represents Parkdale—High Park.
“… It’s time for the Ford government to stop standing in the way of health care professionals trying to save lives.”
In the past, Ford has said he does not support such sites, and prefers rehabilitation. Numerous studies have indicated that safe injection sites can save lives in the midst of an opioid epidemic.
Elliott, however, has said they are “not as effective as some people think they are.”
Residents near the Moss Park site, which opened last year, have complained about frequent drug deals, discarded needles and passersby feeling unsafe.
“Our government’s overriding priority is to ensure that all efforts to combat opioid addiction are designed to introduce people into rehabilitation and that those struggling with addiction get the help they need,” Elliott also said.
“That’s why our government has committed to investing $3.8 billion in mental health, addictions and housing supports over 10 years.”
An open letter to Elliott from community health centres across the province said the delay will only give the sites another month, and “as providers of these services we need to know as soon as possible when your government expects to conclude its review of supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites.”
It says since the additional sites were paused — in St. Catharines, Toronto and Thunder Bay — “at least 28 people have died from overdose in those communities … (the sites) need to open as soon as possible to prevent further deaths.”
They say the “evidence is abundantly clear from international research and our experience on the front lines in Ontario: supervised consumption and overdose prevention play vital roles in helping people get the help they need before a catastrophe takes place.”
With files from Robert Benzie
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy