London drug overdoses triple, deaths spike, wannabee mayors split

London saw a massive spike in drug overdoses this summer, with its overdose-prevention site saving the lives of three times as many people last month as in the six months previous, says the executive director of the organization that hosts the site.

With only two of the four front-running London mayoral candidates supporting a permanent downtown supervised drug consumption site, the need for intervention was driven home when 23 users were “reversed” from drug overdoses at the temporary site in August, said Brian Lester of the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.

From February to August, by comparison, the site — where users can consume drugs under medical supervision –saved the lives of eight people.

The dramatic recent spike — amid a deadly opioid drug crisis sweeping many Ontario cities, including London — underlines the need for politiciansto become engaged on the issue, he said.

“I would be concerned about the implications of a leader in our community not supporting this vital service,” said Lester.“It saves lives, it connects people to addiction-related treatment and support.”

At a mayoral debate Monday, candidate Ed Holder came out in support of a permanent downtown site, joining fellow candidate Coun. Tanya Park who was not at the debate, but also backs the site.

Mayoral candidate Paul Paolatto opposes a permanent site, saying he prefers a mobile service so as not to “surrender any neighbourhood.”

Lester bristled at that language, suggesting safe drug injection sites “demonstrate the opposite. It is about building hope in that neighbourhood, keeping them alive and helping them with a range of services,” he said.

Besides, a mobile service can be offered only where there is a permanent site.

Paul Cheng, also running for mayor, said he supports the site if it remains where it temporarily is operating, at 186 King St., but opposes moving it to 446 York St. or 241 Simcoe St, where permanent sides are now proposed.

The King Street site— the first of its kind in Ontario, but for which provincial approval expires at the end of the month — is temporary. It operates from the same location as the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, which already provided a needle exchange program.

The reason behind the tripling of overdose reversals is that a cheap, mass-made version of fentanyl is flooding the London market, said Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health for London and Middlesex County.

There were 31 opioid drug deaths in London last year, but there have been 22 deaths in the first few months of this year alone. Mackie worries by year-end, the toll will eclipse the record 40 deaths in 2012.

“Most people talk about a negative impact on neighbourhoods” of safe injection sites. “The research is very positive. With needle collection, there is no loitering, no drug dealing. There is a code of conduct for clients that is very effective,” said Mackie.

“Research shows it improves neighbourhoods. There is no increase in crime. This is a solution.”

“We have known for some time this is coming. We are seeing it. It is concerning,” said Mackie.

Drug overdose is the number one cause of death for those aged 20 to 40 in London, he said.

Mackie cites economic disparity, lack of low-income housing and mental health care challenges as reasons for the drug use.

“There are underlying social issues causing it. We need an economy that works for everybody. We need more support” for those in need, said Mackie.

Park wasn’t at Monday’smayoral debate: As an incumbent city councillor, shehad to attend a city council committee meeting. But Park hasbeen a supporter of the safe injection site.

“W hat we see now in our downtown — i n our do o rway s an d al leys and par k s — are u ns uper v i s ed sites. We see dev a sta t ion in our streets,” said Park.

“ For t hose hit by addic tion , it’s important we have sites so we can walk them down the road to recovery.”

It’s not just a humanitarian issue but also a “drag on our economy,” she said.

All three levels of government — civic, provincial and federal— have different roles in sites set up to reduce harm from illegal drug use.

The city has the autho r ity to zone property for a safe injection site, but approval must come from the federal government to allow the use of drugs there.

Supervised drug consumption sites are funded by the Ontario government .

Under Doug Ford’s new Progressive Conservative government, the province has said it won’t approve more such sites until it completes a review of how effective they are.

“ London has been great” in supporting the existing site, said Lester.

“I know colleagues in other communities where the city tries to use zoning to block them.”

ABOUT THE SITES

Temporary location :Called an overdose-prevention site, it opened in February at 186 King St., with provincial approval and funding, since extended by Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government.

Permanent locations :Proposed for 446 York St., where a music store operates, and for a public housing complex at 241 Simcoe St., they’re known as supervised consumption sites and require federal approval.

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