'A huge thing': Advocate applauds St. Thomas council's openness to drug site

A harm-reduction advocate is applauding politicians in St. Thomas for being receptive to opening a supervised drug-use site she says will save lives amid rising overdose deaths.

The support and interest expressed by city councillors this week is "a huge thing for us because it's been something that they've been very hesitant about historically," said Amanda Zielinski, chair of The Nameless in St. Thomas, a grassroots agency supporting individuals experiencing homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

"I think they are seeing the need, and they are hearing the need is there; that people are dying," she said.

While politicians at Monday's council meeting agreed a better approach is needed to tackle addiction and drug use, some cautioned against backing a supervised drug-use site until they receive more information on how it would work.

"What we're doing presently isn't working, so I think it's good that there are other options," Coun. Gary Clarke told his colleagues.

Drug consumption sites "do not increase crime rates in their geographic area, but they do decrease fatal overdoses, so that is good news," he noted, citing a staff report presented to council.

Coun. Steve Wookey questioned how the service would be funded and asked to see models of drug-use sites in municipalities similar in size to St. Thomas.

"It could do a lot of good. But again, I don't want to get too quickly on this" without knowing the location and who will cover the costs, he said.

The discussion comes as Southwestern Public Health concludes a study exploring whether Oxford and Elgin counties need supervised drug use and treatment services.

With rising opioid-related deaths and hospitalizations, advocates and public health officials have called for more harm reduction programs to better protect drug users from the illegal and often toxic street drug supply.

"It's not going to take one answer to fix it. There needs to be a multi-pronged look at it," said Brian Elliot, executive director of The Inn, St. Thomas's emergency shelter.

Various agencies are working together to tackle the opioid crisis, he said, adding the study will "give everybody a chance to look at what has that impact been and what are the next needed steps."

The region has a higher rate of opioid-related deaths than the province, according to the health unit. The average number of monthly deaths from opioid overdoses increased to 3.83 in 2021 from 1.42 in 2019.

In St. Thomas, the number of emergency department visits for overdose in 2021 was 126.1 for every 100,000 people compared with 114 per 100,000 in Ontario.

Just this week, Zielinski responded to an overdose at the doorway of a store, a situation she said has become increasingly common. At least three people in St. Thomas have already died from opioid overdoses since January, she said.

"Our community is constantly grieving and constantly looking for answers," she said.

Wrapping up Monday's discussion, Mayor Joe Preston praised the city for working "exceptionally hard" to open rehab services and three detox beds.

But he cautioned against jumping into another solution "before we've actually had the old solution in place for longer than a couple of days."

Safe consumption sites offer hygienic spaces for people to use drugs with supervision, pick up drug use supplies or the emergency opioid antidote naloxone and access addiction or social service supports, a staff report states.

The service is "long overdue," said Zielinski.

"Having access to a safe consumption site is going to ultimately save lives," she said. "We have to recognize that people are going to use drugs. So let's help them find a way to do this safely."



Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press