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Editorial: Health unit's move to open an injection site is right

Ottawa Public Health says it plans to quickly open a supervised-injection site, presumably putting an end to the “pop-up” injection site that’s operating illegally in town. Good.

One of the perplexing things about the response of governments at all levels to the burgeoning opioid crisis is that Ontario has long been able to see it coming. British Columbia was hard-hit early on; we knew the mounting death toll of addicts would eventually spill into Ontario and other provinces. While this province has not been hit to the same extent as B.C., why were we so ill-prepared?

To be sure, the question isn’t entirely fair. Groups have been working to open officially sanctioned safe-injection sites for years. The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre went through a lengthy, federal rigmarole to open one – which it will finally be able to do this fall. The provincial government’s response plan, including widespread distribution of naloxone (a drug that helps arrest an opioid overdose), was another anticipatory move.

Still, there was a clear gap in treatment. Last year, 40 people in Ottawa died from opioid-related overdoses. This year, each month there are about 120 emergency room visits for overdoses, compared to around 100 last year. 

Enter Overdose Prevention Ottawa, which set up a tent in Raphael Brunet Park in Lowertown, a makeshift – and illegal – safe-injection site. So far, there have been no deaths as a result of the pop-up site, which is something of a metric of success in this field. That said, the project has been operating without any approvals or regulation.

That can’t continue. While Rob Boyd, who’s planning the Sandy Hill site, has suggested he’s impressed with the Lowertown project, there’s no guarantee the next pop-up will be as helpful. Without going through an approvals process – which has been established federally – there’s no way of ensuring that the people who run such sites are competent. And what would happen if other problems arose, such as an accident with a needle? Or a robbery?

This is why the city’s move to open an official site as soon as possible is significant and welcome. It needs to put well-meaning renegades out of business. “It is my intent to begin to offer these services as soon as we can responsibly do so, and we are aiming to achieve that within the next two weeks,” Dr. Isra Levy, the health unit’s head, said in a memo.

This is the best strategy and the only one Ottawans should tolerate. Proper, regulated, safe health care is how we help people. Freelance do-gooders, breaking the law, isn’t.

The only remaining question is why it has taken so long.

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