While receiving a federal exemption to operate a safe site for drug users in Barrie is good news for public health officials, they still need provincial approval before anything can move ahead. But they're remaining "hopeful" that will happen.
A supervised consumption site (SCS) near downtown Barrie received an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) this week, which would to permit the use of illegal drugs at the proposed facility at 11 Innisfil St. This would allow staff at the facility to test and handle drugs without criminal sanctions.
The Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) Simcoe County Branch, as the lead applicant on the proposal, announced Tuesday it had received an exemption from Health Canada, which is needed to operate a proposed Consumption and Treatment Services site (CTS). The facility would be located at the back of 80 Bradford St., a site which has been endorsed by city council.
The facility, which is referred to as both an SCS and CTS as the terms are interchangeable, would provide a safe space and sterile equipment for individuals to use pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of health-care staff. Consumption means taking opioids and other drugs by injection, smoking, snorting or orally.
Cathy Eisner, who is a public health nurse with Simcoe Muskoka's Substance Use Injury Prevention Program, says although the Health Canada exemption came as positive news, proponents of the site — which include the local health unit as well as CMHA Simcoe County — are still waiting on Ministry of Health approval, which in turn will provide operational funding for the SCS.
“That application went in at the same time as the Health Canada one, so we are hopeful that will come soon,” she told BarrieToday.
Following potential approval from the province, Eisner said there is yet another step in the process, which includes the submission of an application for capital funds by CMHA Simcoe County Branch.
Once that approval is in place, renovations at the site could begin.
Eisner noted once the first step of the approval process in place for the operational piece, the goal would be to begin engaging the community in the development of the SCS/CTS advisory group and to get input into plans that may go into the design once capital funding is granted.
In the meantime, Eisner noted there's still a lot of ongoing work taking place in the community to address the current harms being seen by the toxic drug supply.
“We know the need (for an SCS) continues and our data shows the need continues and what we hear from our community partners shows it, too,” she said. “When we talk about data, we are talking about people who’ve lost their life to this toxic drug crisis who are members of our community. They have families and loved ones.”
Deaths related to toxic drug overdoses were “much higher” last year compared to 2020, said Eisner, adding there were 169 confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths in Simcoe-Muskoka in 2021.
“Barrie was significantly impacted again, with almost half of those deaths being in Barrie," she said.
From a health unit perspective, she said staff continue to work with community partners to ensure people who need naloxone or safe supplies get what they need to use safely, while from a Simcoe-Muskoka Opioid Strategy perspective members are looking at a refreshed strategy — including potentially broadening the scope of the strategy to recognize the issue is more of a toxic drug supply issue, as opposed to than just an opioid issue.
“One of the things we are going to be exploring is investigating the possibility of creating a safe supply program in the area, as well as continued advocacy on the decriminalization on personal use and possession… and partnering with enhanced health and social services (as well as) working to reduce the stigma that’s associated with substance use, which leads to so many harms itself," Eisner said.
In addition to working to create safer spaces for people who do use illegal substances, the health unit continues to look into evidence-based prevention programs and promoting overall positive mental health.
“There’s lots of work happening while we wait," Eisner said.
Meredith Fryia, who is the manager of addiction services with CMHA Simcoe County branch manager, says although they have not been given a timeline on when they might expect provincial approval, officials are feeling optimistic it will happen sooner than later.
“We are really excited about getting this up and running. We have met with them several times, answered all of their questions and it is now with them," she said.
We don’t have a timeline, but we are hopeful to hear soon," Fryia added.
In the meantime, she also noted there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes.
“Given we know the opioid crisis has really impacted this region in a very significant way, I think this is a very crucial part of the overall strategy,” she told BarrieToday, stressing an SCS is, however, merely one part of a much larger strategy to address the opioid crisis.
“It’s in the continuum of addiction treatment services, and it’s not a standalone option, but it is one element that can help prevent overdose deaths,” Fryia said. “It also helps people get connected with supports and resources. A CTS doesn’t just offer a place for someone to use safely, it also offers a host of health services they can access.
"There are a number of pieces to this, and it’s just one of many services and supports that can help people on their journey.”
Barrie city council endorsed the site in June 2021.
The proposed location has drawn criticism from some neighbours, while others have called it a necessary "life-saving" tool.