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OPIOID CRISIS, PART 2: Drug problem 'a public health crisis,' says health unit

'Opioid crisis is a human crisis which needs a human solution,' says Barrie mayor; Officials agree that root causes must be dealt with
heroin needle stock

This is part two of BarrieToday's seven-part series looking into the local opioid crisis. To read part one, click here

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There are many moving parts in dealing with Barrie’s opioid crisis, from new-look municipal and provincial governments, to the group spearheading the facility having to reapply to the province for a safe injection/consumption site.

But anyway you look at the statistics, Barrie has one of the worst opioid problems in Ontario.

Over the first six months of 2018, there were 31 confirmed and four probable opioid-related deaths in Simcoe Muskoka, which was similar to the 33 opioid-related deaths in Simcoe Muskoka from January to June 2017, according to data from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. 

“The opioid situation in Barrie, and Simcoe Muskoka more broadly, is a public health crisis for which we need to implement all effective, available interventions,” said Dr. Lisa Simon, associate medical officer of health with the local health unit, who supports a safe injection/consumption site in Barrie.

“We also all have the opportunity to act with compassion, to inform ourselves on the complex factors that put people at risk of addiction, and to play a role in creating caring communities," Simon told BarrieToday. 

With the change in government, the Gilbert Centre, which had previously applied in April 2018 under the Liberals, must reapply to the province for a ‘safe injection/consumption site’, the broad term we will use for this series. That application is expected to be submitted for review in the next few months.

“We haven’t submitted the new application yet and we are starting our consultations in the new year,” Matt Turner, harm reduction co-ordinator with the Gilbert Centre, told BarrieToday shortly before the calendar flipped to 2019. “These consultations are a prerequisite for the application.”

A letter of intent will be sent to the province “soon,” with the application expected to be completed in April, he said.

Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) will replace the former overdose prevention site (OPS) model that had been available under the previous Liberal government. It remains unclear exactly how a CTS facility would look if Barrie is approved.

One of the proposed CTS sites in downtown Barrie, 21 Bradford St., has Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MP Alex Nuttall up in arms due to its location. The MP also notes that Barrie already has a needle-exchange program and he doubts an injection site “would improve these behaviours further.”

Turner made it clear 21 Bradford is by no means a done deal and other sites are also being considered, although those locations haven’t been made public.

“We need to look at solutions and not rehash old discussions," Turner said. "Any site has the potential for backlash. We’re working to address concerns and welcome feedback during the consultation process.

“Our final location would be determined based off of feedback from people who use drugs, community stakeholders and social service agencies,” Turner added.

However, Turner also points out some of the positives for a safe injection/consumption site potentially at 21 Bradford.

Under the PC government’s new model, CTS facilities must include access to treatment and be within walking distance of open drug use, Turner said, adding “this site would be beneficial for that reason.”

Nuttall, who has been strongly opposed to any type of injection/consumption site in downtown Barrie for several reasons, held a news conference in late-November where he presented a 49-page report which included ways he thinks the opioid crisis could be better addressed.

Nuttall also recently called for a national debate on the opioid crisis in the House of Commons.

The MP says the problem needs to be handled in a “caring and compassionate way.” His report recommends that Canada adopt a new policy, one which does not include “bringing illegal drugs into vulnerable communities.”

Mayor Jeff Lehman says he has been hearing opinions on both sides, for and against any type of safe injection/consumption site.

“People are definitely split on the idea,” Lehman told BarrieToday, adding he saw more comment in favour of an OPS online when that application was active. “There are definitely strong opinions on both sides of this issue.”

Lehman says he has some “misgivings” about a safe injection/consumption site in whatever form it may take.

“But as I’ve said before, I’ve come to see that it’s necessary and far better than the alternative, which is what we have today,” the mayor said, adding he would support temporary measures to help alleviate the problem.

However, Lehman said he has a “much bigger problem” when it comes to a permanent facility.

“I struggle with the message that would send,” Lehman said. “All of this said, I strongly believe the opioid crisis is a human crisis which needs a human solution.

“We need treatment, mental-health services, addictions counselling and a response that targets the root causes of addiction,” he added. “Without that, we won’t be working towards a solution, just treating the symptoms.”

Turner said said he agrees with Nuttall on some points in his report, including the lack of services in Barrie and the barriers people face in seeking treatment.

“As well, his endorsement of the Portugal model and continuing public comments on this issue have created a more fulsome discussions that we need,” Turner added.

In Portugal, the European nation has moved away from the idea of incarcerating most drug users and toward a system which promotes education, prevention and treatment. 

However, Turner also says it seems Nuttall’s opioid report “was rushed and lacks Canadian research. Alex uses multiple academic papers, but could’ve included research from Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and London.”

Keenan Aylwin, the recently elected city councillor whose ward includes downtown Barrie, said more needs to be done to include public voices in the discussion.

“This issue should not divide us as a community,” said Aylwin, who's also a former provincial Green Party candidate. “We can’t let fear divide us in this time of crisis. The people dying from overdoses are our neighbours, friends and family. We owe them a commitment to action based on care and compassion.”

Aylwin says he has been meeting with citizens and front-line workers to learn more about ways to tackle the addiction crisis in Barrie and to hear public concerns.

“All levels of government need to work together to find evidence-based solutions to this crisis,” he said.

“The reality is that people are dying on our streets and something must be done,” Aylwin said. “We need harm reduction services that will save lives in the short-term, but also concrete action to address the root causes of the addictions crisis in the long-term. It’s not an either/or choice.”

Nuttall says he's confident the opioid battle can be won, but only by dealing with the root cause through expanded access to treatment services.


Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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