The provincial government is facing criticism for putting the brakes on new overdose prevention sites amid a rash of overdose deaths in the city.

Toronto police said Tuesday that they have seen seven fatal overdoses in 14-Division alone since Aug. 2. Police said the powerful opioids fentanyl and/or carfentanil are believed to be responsible for the fatalities.

The warning from police came a day after Health Minister Christine Elliott announced that the province would pause the opening of three new overdose prevention sites in the province, including one in Toronto.

Elliott said that the government is putting a hold on the new sites so that it can review whether or not they are effective.

“I just want to make sure that when public funds are being expended that supervised injection sites are going to serve their purpose, they are going to save lives, and they are going to help people get into rehab,” Elliott said Monday.

Overdose prevention sites are temporary facilities approved by the province, while safe injection sites are permanent, federally approved facilities.

In a news release, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance called Elliott’s decision “wrongheaded” and said it will cost lives.

“The area of the city where the overdoses occurred includes Parkdale, where just 3 days earlier the Ministry of Health blocked the opening of an overdose prevention site (OPS) at Parkdale Community Health Centre,” the group said in its release. “This safety warning underlines why OPS are so necessary, and why ‘pausing’ them in the middle of a public health crisis is so wrongheaded.”

The group said the government should be focused on expanding safe injection services rather than cutting them.

Speaking with CP24, Toronto Overdose Prevention Society spokesperson Nick Boyce said overdose deaths are the result of treating drug addiction as a moral and criminal issue rather than a health issue. 

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the sites are trying to achieve and what they do,” Boyce said.

“Why people die from drug overdoses is when they’re using alone. We need to create safe spaces for people to use. It might seem counterintuitive to let people use drugs when they are struggling. But if we allow them to come into a safe space, we build relationships, we bring them back into health and social services – that’s what they’re about.”

Elliott said Monday that part of the reason for the pause was to address concerns from neighbours in areas where overdose prevention centres are located.

Ward 28 Toronto Centre-RosedaleCoun. Lucy Troisi told CP24 Wednesday that she supports a pause to new injection sites so that the government can make sure that proper resources are in place to support them.

 Troisi said that while she thinks harm-reduction services are “essential,” she said people in her ward say they don’t feel safe walking their dogs or taking their kids to school because of the sites.

“Our four injection sites are all within walking distance of each other, so I’m trying to put neighbourhoods first until we properly evaluate and properly plan where those sites go,” Troisi said. “The people who are providing those supports need more resources. They need more funding to ensure that everyone in the community feels safe.”

However Boyce said that when people hang out outside safe injection sites and overdose prevention sites, it’s because there is not enough capacity to serve them.

“When we see people hanging out around these sites it’s not because we’ve attracted people to those areas, it’s because the capacity to service them – we’re just not meeting the demand right now,” he said.

Coun. Joe Cressy, whose downtown ward makes up a part of 14 division, told CP24 Wednesday that the pausing of life-saving services for drug users is the result of “fear-mongering” rather than good policy.

“These deaths are preventable with a public health response that has been proven in more than a hundred sites around the world,” Cressy said. “We know that through harmreduction and supervised injection we can keep people alive, that with adequate treatment we can help people who are ready to move off drugs, and that with adequate prevention, we can seek to prevent people from using drugs in the first place.

“I’m tired of people dying needlessly, I’m tired of people out there fearmongering, saying that we need to stop the delivery of health services to play to people’s fears of drugs as opposed to treating this as the public health emergency it is. I’m just tired.”

Speaking with reporters, Mayor John Tory called the recent overdose deaths “extraordinary, unacceptable and tragic.”

“What we face right now in this city with regards to mental health and addictions is a crisis,” Tory said. “It is a growing crisis. It affects more people than it ever did before and it is taking more lives and I think we have to decide that we’re going to get serious about this.”

Tory said that he recently visited some of the sites with Troisi at the invitation of neighbourhood groups. While he acknowledged that there is work to do to better manage the activity outside of some safe injection sites, Tory said he has no doubt about the importance of the services.

“I don’t question what goes on inside. I continue to support those establishments as places that are saving lives,” Tory said.

He also said the number of overdose deaths is unacceptable.

“I can’t believe that people don’t strongly believe that we should be doing whatever we can to say that never again in a week should we see anywhere in this country, but in Toronto, seven people die of drug overdoses in less than a week.”

Tory added that any review of the program by the provincial government should be conducted as quickly as possible.

“If there’s going to be a review done, it should be done very expeditiously because lives are at stake,” Tory said.

Elliott has said that she will give her recommendation on the sites to PremierDoug Ford in September.

- With files from The Canadian Press