Should the city of Toronto spend millions of dollars to make it easier for hard-drug users to indulge in their addictions? That’s the question Toronto councillors are wrestling with in the wake of a new $300,000 report from the city’s public health authorities. They are calling for taxpayer-funded “harm reduction” sites, where junkies can ingest their narcotics free from penalty.
The report’s 66 recommendations include broadening the city’s distribution of so-called “safe crack kits,” serving hourly glasses of wine to alcoholics in other homeless shelters besides Seaton House, creating harm-reduction housing through Toronto’s Affordable Housing office, and possibly establishing “safe injection sites” modelled on those in place in Vancouver and Amsterdam.
Toronto has distributed clean hypodermic needles to heroin users since 1988 as a means of controlling the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and currently doles out money to groups that hand out “safe crack kits” to those who wish to avail themselves of the materials.
While harm-reduction advocates argue that needle exchanges have proven successful in curbing blood-borne diseases, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, acknowledged during a recent press conference that the “evidence was not there yet” to demonstrate the health benefits of giving away free crack pipes.
Opposition to harm-reduction plans stem from three arguments. Fiscal conservatives complain it is a frivolous use of taxpayer funds at a time when the city of Toronto has repeatedly pleaded poverty to the provincial government and asked for financial bailouts.
Others worry about the dangers to children and property values of placing a safe injection site in their neighbourhoods. Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy recently wrote of two Cabbagetown residents who found a cache of needles, crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia “lying loose” in the grass of the Sumach-Shuter park.
Still others believe such harm-reduction strategies remove the moral stigma from hard drug use and enable addicts to kill themselves. Pro-harm-reduction councillor Kyle Rae has admitted he is “not on the tack of trying to stop drug use,” but is merely attempting to manage its harm.
Indeed, the plan’s strongest opponent, Councillor Rob Ford, has compared safe-injection sites to “euthanasia,” adding: “You’re just giving (addicts) a place to kill themselves. You might as well just have a crematorium beside the crack house.”