Pubdate: Thu, 02 Mar 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Author: Desmond Cole
Page: A13


Two weeks ago, 28-year-old Pierre Gregoire died after a fatal drug
overdose in the washroom of a downtown restaurant

When I worked at a drop-in centre for youth over a decade ago, our
staff carried keys to the facility's washrooms at all times. We were
always prepared for the possibility that young people we served might
lock themselves in the washrooms to get high, particularly by using
opioid drugs, and fall unconscious due to an overdose.

The youth we served didn't want to be seen using opioids - mere
possession of the stuff is criminal, and the added stigma of injecting
drugs compelled them to get high in the most secluded and therefore
dangerous places. It's encouraging that Toronto has finally approved
supervised injection sites so people who use opiate can do so more
safely. But our country still hasn't dealt with the larger issue of
drug criminalization, which keeps people who need support in fear and
in hiding.

Two weeks ago, 28-year-old Pierre Gregoire died after a fatal drug
overdose in the washroom of a downtown restaurant. Police believe
Gregoire used heroin that was mixed with a far more powerful opiod
called fentanyl, which has caused hundreds of fatal overdoses across
Canada in recent years.

It's illegal to sell fentanyl in Canada for recreational use, and it
should be. At the same time, we have to stop subjecting people like
Gregoire, who was openly struggling with his addiction, to criminal
penalties for using fentanyl and other hard drugs. Homeless and
underhoused drug users, who are already criminalized for being poor,
are most vulnerable to fatal overdose - their lack of shelter and
privacy forces them to use in public washrooms, alleyways, ravines,
and other unsafe places.

I had never heard of fentanyl until the mid 2000s, when young people I
served at the drop-in centre near Queen St. W. and Spadina Ave.
started using it. That drop-in centre, now closed, was located in the
same city block as the restaurant where Gregoire overdosed. His story
reminds me of another young man I used to serve named Eric, who died
in a parking garage on the very same block after a fatal overdose.

Services for the homeless have been concentrated near Queen and
Spadina for many years. As a result, the intersection has also been
the site of endless police patrols to catch homeless people who are
selling, possessing and using drugs. Criminalization has failed to
prevent drugs from being sold and consumed in the area, just as it has
failed to stop people from overdosing in local laneways and fast food
washrooms. No amount of money can stop the drug activity, but we keep
on spending to keep it dangerously out of sight.

Last week advocates, health care professionals, community workers, and
affected families in several Canadian cities held a National Day of
Action on the Overdose Crisis. Many of them are asking the federal
government to consider decriminalizing or legalizing the use of hard
drugs, and even providing prescriptions for people dealing with their
addictions. I yearn for the day our governments welcome such reforms
as common sense as good public policy. For now, politicians devote
piles of money to drug enforcement, and tacitly condemn drug users for
bringing the pain on themselves.

Insite, North America's pioneering supervised injection facility in
Vancouver, has been saving lives in that city since it opened in 2003.
In addition to providing more safety for drug users, Insite also
serves as a centre for counselling, referrals, and medical care.
Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried and failed to
have Insite closed, but no new sites were approved during his tenure.

"We as a government will not use taxpayers' money to fund drug use,"
Harper said in 2006. His successor, Justin Trudeau, and the Liberals
have been more open to a harm reduction approach, which seeks to work
with drug users instead of moralizing their choices. However, Trudeau
is now poised to oversee a system in which only those in big cities
will have access to safe, legal places to use hard drugs. Many who
could have access may still choose not to go, especially if we
continue to reinforce drug stigma through our jails and courts.

Provincial estimates suggest more than 1,000 Canadians die of
unintended drug overdoses each year. If we're going to use every
available resource to treat this epidemic, we have to stop
criminalizing it.
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MAP posted-by: Matt