Pubdate: Wed, 04 Oct 2017
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Authors: Richard Elliott and Caitlin Shane
Page: 9


Despite the mounting toll of overdose-related deaths in Ontario,
Ottawa's mayor and certain city councillors are trying to close a
"pop-up" overdose prevention site in Raphael Brunet Park. The site,
staffed by concerned volunteers with Overdose Prevention Ottawa and
funded via community donations, provides life-saving harm reduction
services for people who use drugs. There have been more than 1,150
visits and no fatalities since it opened five weeks ago.

Various political "leaders" in Ottawa have criticized pop-up site
organizers and been quick to presume the illegality of the site. The
site operates without a federal ministerial exemption from the
Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which means that those using
illegal drugs at the site can still be charged for possession when
using a service that could mean the difference between life and death.

But it is this very absence of sanctioned services - where people can
access health services without fear of prosecution - that has
mobilized community volunteers where governments continue to dither.
Even more shameful are politicians who oppose clearly authorized sites
while criticizing community members who took the immediate initiative
to save lives, even in the face of bureaucratic barriers.

Pop-up overdose prevention sites are an essential public health
intervention. It is both legally and ethically misguided to suggest
that these sites run afoul of the law.

First, such assertions fail to consider the constitutional violations
that would likely result from closure, and disregard the spirit of the
Supreme Court of Canada's landmark decision regarding Vancouver's
Insite, Canada's first authorized supervised injection site.

In 2008, Canada's then-minister of health, Tony Clement, declared that
"Insite is an abomination" and indicated he would refuse to renew an
exemption for its clients and staff. The Supreme Court concluded that
this refusal violated the rights of Insite's clients to life, liberty
and security of the person, contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights
and Freedoms. The Court said the denial of the exemption was arbitrary
and that the harms were grossly disproportionate to any purported
benefit of maintaining an absolute prohibition of illegal drugs on
Insite's premises.

Shuttering Ottawa's pop-up site would engage the same interests of the
hundreds of people who rely on that service for necessary health care
- - especially given the lack of adequate alternative local spaces.
After months of waiting, Ottawa Public Health finally received an
exemption from Health Canada to open an interim site, just days after
the pop-up site opened. While the interim site is a step in the right
direction, it can only serve two clients at a time; this will not fill
the fatal gap in services that currently exists, especially if the
pop-up site is forced to close.

It is also worth recalling the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act. Under
this new federal law, individuals at the scene of an overdose are
protected from simple drug possession charges. This protection extends
to the person who called 911, the person experiencing an overdose, and
any other person present. If emergency services were called to respond
to an overdose at a pop-up site, charges for those offences could not
be laid against either the people using the site or its volunteer
health workers. So why are local politicians tossing around
accusations of "illegal" behaviour against these Good Samaritans who
are there to prevent harm and respond in the case of an overdose?

It's also highly questionable whether pop-up site volunteers are
criminally liable for the fact that people using the site are in
possession of illegal drugs (also known as "constructive possession").
As city authorities have noted when objecting to the pop-up site in
the park, Overdose Prevention Ottawa does not have control over the
Ottawa's park property. The volunteers staffing the site don't exert
control over who enters or exits the park, nor do they have control
over the substances those individuals might carry. They are Good
Samaritans who are present in a public space where people are using
drugs and at risk of overdose. It's absurd to suggest they are
indirectly guilty of drug possession for being equipped to help in
emergency circumstances.

Those who urge the shutting down of overdose prevention sites are on
the wrong side of history. Instead of attacking volunteer health
workers, politicians and police at all levels should support and learn
from these courageous and life-saving initiatives. It's neither
criminal nor irresponsible to save a life. It is irresponsible and
morally repugnant to impede others from doing so.

- ---------------------------------------------------------------

Richard Elliott is a lawyer and executive director of the Canadian 
HIV/AIDS Legal Network ( and Caitlin Shane is a lawyer 
with Pivot Legal Society (
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