Welcoming Toronto's First Safer Supply Programs to Address Opioid Overdose Crisis

Two Toronto Community Health Centres have received federal funding to operate the first formal safer supply programs in our city, in order to reduce fatal opioid-related overdoses. This announcement is welcome news after Toronto Public Health reported that last month, 27 people in our city lost their lives to suspected overdoses – a tragic record that surpasses July's fatalities from COVID-19.  

We know that law-and-order and prohibition approaches have proven ineffective when it comes to opioids and the overdose crisis. Right now, we have a toxic supply of contaminated opioids on our streets, and these drugs are killing people. The overdose crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with less services available and additional barriers for people who use opioids. We need a new, public health approach: one where people can access regulated drugs, so that they know what they are taking and can stay safe.

The Toronto Board of Health has long advocated for all levels of government to come together to address the overdose crisis and support harm reduction approaches, including a safer supply approach for people who use drugs. With this in mind, I welcome the Federal government's investment through their Substance Use and Addiction Program, and want to acknowledge the support of Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, along with local representatives MP Julie Dabrusin, MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, MP Adam Vaughan, and MP Arif Virani, in making these two safer supply programs possible.

Safer supply programs, where health care professionals prescribe medications to people who use drugs, provide a safe alternative to the current toxic illicit drug supply. They also serve as an entry point to connect people with social services like housing and health care. 

The two safer supply programs, which are the first funded programs of their kind in Toronto, are the Emergency Safer Supply Program at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, and the Downtown East Collaborative Safe Opioid Supply Program, which is a collaborative effort by the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, the Regent Park Community Health Centre, and Street Health.

Through these programs, people who use drugs will be able to access pharmaceutical-grade opioids of known quality, quantity, and strength from a health professional. This provides as an alternative to purchasing drugs illegally, which may be contaminated or tainted with fatal substances. In addition to providing a safer supply of opioids, these programs provide connections to a range of harm reduction program options, as well as wraparound services.

Safer supply programs will contribute significantly to reducing overdoses and saving lives, during the pandemic and beyond. They can also serve as entry point for people who use drugs to be connected to important health and social services. While this federal funding is a significant positive development in the ongoing work to respond to the overdose crisis, more action from all levels of government is needed in order to scale up overdose prevention programs across our city.