This summer, a group of harm reduction advocates set up a couple of large tents in a tiny park in downtown Ottawa so that people would have a space to smoke and inject drugs without risking their lives.
Organized by a group calling themselves Overdose Prevention Ottawa, the pop-up overdose prevention site opened in response to an alarming spike in life-threatening overdoses that included the deaths of three people in the Ottawa area.
“People are dying in ridiculous numbers,” said Robert Jamison, an advocate and former drug user, told Ricochet.
Volunteers say approximately one person a week dies as a result of drug overdoses in Ottawa.
Jamison was one of the small group of people who were fed up with waiting for government action. They decided to open a site where people could smoke and inject drugs in safety. Their sense of urgency sprang from the overdose crisis occurring throughout Canada and the United States. The epidemic began several years ago when drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil were added to street drugs to increase their potency, without consumers’ knowledge.
In Canada 2,816 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, and the number of deaths will likely be higher this year.
“I think it was brought to more public attention when people from all backgrounds started dying. It wasn't just marginalized street people, but young girls in Kanata [an Ottawa suburb] who were dying,” Leila Attar, a core organizer with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, told Ricochet.
Over the past three years, as the opioid crisis has grown, the demographics of those dying by overdose has changed. No longer are overdose deaths happening almost exclusively to poor white people and poor people of colour. Now middle- and upper-class people are affected as well.
Canadian drug policy, as in the United States, has been one of the primary mechanisms through which Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour have been criminalized and subjected to police violence, arrest and incarceration. In August 2017, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated in its review of Canada that it was “concerned at the reported high rate of incarceration of indigenous peoples and persons belonging to minority groups, in particular African-Canadians, due to [many reasons, including] overpolicing, drug policies and racially based sentencing.”
The site isn’t much to look at. Three canopy tents with plastic tarps for walls sit in a tiny park with a few small trees and some worn and dying grass located beside a large empty parking lot. Another canopy tent shelters a couple of plastic tables, which serve as the reception desk and are also used to distribute food and drinks. Behind the tables are boxes filled with medical gear, blankets, and other supplies.
The day the pop-up site was erected there was a heavy police presence and people were afraid of being arrested. The site doesn’t have any permits and isn’t officially sanctioned by Health Canada.
The Ottawa site followed on the heels of similar sites in Vancouver and received extensive media coverage. In this context, with overdose deaths at an all-time high, local politicians and the Ottawa police service chose to let the site continue operating. Mayor Jim Watson has called the life-saving site illegal, while City Councillor Mathieu Fleury publicly called for the site to be raided by police.
Mayor Watson declined Ricochet’s request for an interview.
The war on drug users
The war on drugs is killing people and devastating families and communities.
According to many civil society organizations, such as the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, decriminalization of drug use is central to ending the overdose epidemic.
“The ultimate solution to this entire overdose crisis and every single problem with drug policy is decriminalization,” said Marilou Gagnon, a core organizer and nurse volunteer with Overdose Prevention Ottawa.
In 2007 the federal Conservatives intensified the war on drugs and drug users through policies such as the National Anti-Drug Strategy, which prioritized the use of police and prisons in an attempt to reduce drug use, and the Safe Streets and Communities Acts, which introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences.
The overdose epidemic has resulted in increased interest in drug policy from the public, activists, and the media. So far, critics say, the federal and provincial governments are not adequately addressing the crisis.
“Right now the Liberals who are in power seem to be pretty opposed to decriminalization which a lot of experts believe is a way to address this crisis,” said Attar.
Advocates of decriminalization point to the success of Portugal. In 2001, in the midst of a heroin epidemic that saw approximately 1 per cent of the population addicted to the drug, the country decriminalized drug use and began addressing it as a health issue, instead of a criminal issue. Decriminalization has reportedly lowered the number of drug cases by 75 per cent, deaths due to overdose are five times lower than the average in the European Union, and the rate of drug-related HIV infections has dropped by 95 per cent.
A powerful community
As a result of the pop-up site, the City of Ottawa opened its first supervised injection site on Sept. 25.
The city has also sped up approval for more sites. In Ontario alone, one person dies of a drug overdose every 10 hours.
“People need to understand that these are human beings, they’re not urban lepers. They suffer their whole life to die in an alleyway,” said Jamison.
OPO’s defiant efforts are part of a broad movement for drug policy reform. The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network listed six actions for governments to take to tackle the overdose epidemic: “Scale up overdose response measures; improve access to treatment for opioid dependence; rapidly expand access to safer consumption services; implement comprehensive harm reduction in prisons; strengthen harm reduction; and end the ‘war on drugs.’”
With winter approaching, Ottawa’s overdose prevention site said Tuesday they would be taking down their tents. The closure was announced on the same day a safe drug use trailer opened one block away.
In two and a half months, the site had over 3400 visits. Not one drug user has died there. In a statement, organizers said they were proud of their efforts.
For 74 days, we have operated without any support from any level of government. It is only through the tireless efforts of our more than 200 volunteers, and through the donations of thousands of private supporters were we able to stand up where our government had failed so many. It is shameful that so many individuals have had to sacrifice so much to fix that failing. But it is also truly inspiring to see the love, the compassion, and unwavering support of our neighbours in the face of this emergency. We have created a powerful community of advocates and we will continue to use that strength to both demand and actively build a better city for everyone.