Overflow crowd at meeting about proposed-drug use facility in Woodstock

A public meeting Tuesday about a proposed supervised drug-use site in Woodstock attracted a crowd that packed the council chamber at city hall and spilled over into a hall and adjoining room.

Citizens gathered alongside health professionals to share concerns and recommendations about the facility where people would use drugs under the care of medical staff.

Woodstock is the proposed location for the supervised drug use site, due to the number of deaths, hospitalizations and emergency visits in the region as a result of opioid use, all of which are above the provincial average.

“We clearly have an opioid crisis in our general community," Ninh Tran, medical officer of health for Southwestern Public Health, said.

Tran was the first speaker at the special city council meeing. He presented statistics from the health unit for Oxford and Elgin counties indicating the region ranks higher in all three categories than the provincial average.

In 2021, opioid-related emergency department visits in Oxford and Elgin were 162 per 100,000 versus Ontario’s 114 per 100,000. The region had 31.9 opioid-related hospitalizations per 100,000 versus 16.3 per 100,000 in Ontario and deaths were 21.9 per 100,000 versus Ontario’s 19.4 per 100,000.

Tran said supervised drug use sites are needed "to reverse or improve our opioid crisis situation."

He was one of several health professionals who spoke in favour of opening a supervised drug use site in Woodstock.

"It would be reducing opioid harms, particularly deaths. I think that's probably the biggest benefit you'll see, because people will come in rather than doing it alone at home and in public spaces," he said.

The first citizen to speak was Erin McMahon, a registered nurse from Woodstock. Wearing a shirt with the words Harm reduction saves lives, she urged councillors and the community to support the proposed site.

“Harm reduction saves lives, seatbelts save lives, vaccines save lives, bike helmets save lives, RIDE programs save lives, CTS (consumption treatment services) save lives,” McMahon said.

Jasmine Moulton, a local business owner, was the first of several citizens who outlined their opposition to the proposed facility.

“I am going to cut straight to the point. I implore all members here today, to vote against, if and when it comes to a vote, opening a consumption and treatment service or CTS site here in Woodstock, and likewise to deny Southwestern Public Health the letter of support it’s seeking from the city for provincial funding application,” she said.

Woodstock Mayor Jerry Acchione said in an interview he wasn’t surprised about the response, but despite divided opinion, the special meeting was cordial.

“I’m really happy how respectful everything is moving along today,” Acchione said during a break in the meeting.

The next step in the process is uncertain.

Tran said the health unit has not identified a possible site in Woodstock.

“Southwestern Public Health is still in an exploratory phase, so we haven’t had any decisions yet in terms of locations or even specifics on service delivery models,” he said.

Acchione said he still hasn’t made up his mind about the facility opening in Woodstock, but he doesn’t want it downtown.

“The only thing I am adamant about, I do not want it in downtown Woodstock,” Acchione said.

“Next steps will be dependent on city council. If somebody wants to bring a motion forward to accept or deny the report moving on, then so be it. As of right now it will keep going along with Southwestern Public Health, unless they hear from city council,” Acchione said.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

Brian Williams, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press