With smoking – not injecting – drugs now the leading cause of opioid-poisoning deaths in the region, Peterborough’s Board of Health is calling for people who smoke their drugs to have access to the city’s supervised drug consumption and treatment site (CTS).
The board voted last week to write Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones to request funding to adapt the CTS’s services to allow inhalation drug use, something not currently permitted at any provincially-funded CTS.
Almost half of people killed by Peterborough’s toxic drug supply last year died from inhalation drug use, according to a partial analysis of 2021 opioid deaths by Peterborough Public Health. Less than 10 percent of people died from injection drug use, PPH said.
Carolyn King, an advocate for people who use drugs, said the health board’s move is a positive step. But she’s frustrated that those in power haven’t acted faster to reduce inhalation deaths, as they did to address the threat of COVID-19.
“We saw with COVID the entire world pivoted and put things into place that saved lives immediately or mitigated harms immediately. And that same kind of response has been denied to people who use drugs in our communities,” she said.
Inhalation deaths have been rising sharply across the province since 2020, but governments have put up red tape against allowing inhalation at supervised consumption sites, King said.
That’s part of what prompted King and fellow advocate Crystal Hebert last year to open the Tweak Easy, an unsanctioned overdose prevention site where people can smoke or inject their drugs.
It consists of a pair of partially-enclosed tents that volunteers set up in different parts of the city once a week.
When the Tweak Easy started, the goal was to carve out a “protected, intentional space to support people who inhale their drugs,” King said. But the volunteers also wanted to send a message: “When there is an emergent health crisis, when our community members are dying, it is possible to address that crisis in a timely fashion and save lives,” King said.
On Wednesday, a supervised consumption site in Toronto became the first sanctioned site in the province to allow smoking.
The site at Casey House, a hospital for people living with or at risk of HIV, has a specially-designed room with external ventilation where people can smoke drugs, communications director Lisa McDonald said by email.
The site is not funded by the province, but it could open the door for Peterborough’s CTS to allow inhalation.
McDonald said Casey House received confirmation from the province’s health ministry that allowing inhalation on site does not violate the Smoke Free Ontario Act, which bans smoking in workplaces and was seen as a potential barrier to inhalation services in the province.
Meanwhile, King and other volunteers are gearing up for their second winter running the Tweak Easy. They are asking for donations to keep the site running, but that’s become more difficult since GoFundMe shut down their fundraising page in September. Donations of cash, as well as snacks and survival gear like tarps and warm clothes can still be made directly to volunteers.