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All mayoral candidates, MPP support supervised consumption site

There may be the political will to support such a site, but finding the dollars to start one up continues to be a challenge for the group leading the charge to build it
All four candidates for mayor support the opening of a supervised consumption site in Sault Ste. Marie, which could look similar to this one in Guelph.

All four candidates for mayor say they will support an application for a supervised consumption site to be built in Sault Ste. Marie and the city’s member of provincial parliament promises to do everything he can to make it happen.

There may be the political will to support such a site, but finding the dollars to start one up continues to be a challenge for the group leading the charge to build it. 

Other northern Ontario cities like North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury have either recently opened a supervised consumption site or will be opening one in the very near future. The sites allow people to use drugs in a supervised environment to greatly reduce the chances of death by overdose.

Desiree Beck is the executive director of Willow Addiction Support Services. She has been on a years-long journey to drum up support to complete an application and gain funding for a supervised consumption site in the city.

“No existing organization seemed to want to take on the challenge of starting a consumption site, so I just did it myself,” said Beck. “We have a significant amount of support, we just don’t have the money.”

There are two main applications to complete — a federal exemption, which allows controlled substances to be brought in to a site, along with a provincial component application.

“The federal government expects us to have our provincial application done first and the province expects the federal application to be done first. Both require all of the dimensions, fire escapes, everything you can imagine in place. So we are kind of in a gridlock,” she said.

Willow has applied for provincial funding a number of times over the past few years but has always been rejected. Now Beck is looking to the other northern Ontario communities that have been successful with a different approach.

Beck recently reached out to the four current candidates running for mayor of Sault Ste. Marie.

“The reason I reached out to those running for mayor is, similar to North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury, is to get them to temporarily leverage municipal dollars to help us get set up because that’s what they did in those communities, that’s the only reason they got them,” said Beck.

“We met with them over Zoom and gave them an opportunity to share with us why they were running, what is important to them and their campaign. That’s how we opened each meeting,” said Beck. “Then we introduced ourselves and allowed an opportunity to answer questions along the way.”

She figures a total of about $1.8 million will be needed to begin operation of a supervised consumption site in the Sault.

“We are asking [the candidates] to pledge $1.8 million to allow us to get our capital needs met and to get fully operational. The city has a number of vacant properties, they could allow us to use one of those properties provided it meets the provincial and federal requirements,” said Beck. “That is how Sudbury, Timmins and North Bay all got off the ground. We are asking them to follow the lead of these other northern Ontario communities and help us with the financial component so we can start to save the lives of people in our own community.”

The strategy may end up paying off, as all four candidates expressed support for a supervised consumption site when asked about it by SooToday.

Matthew Shoemaker said he has been doing research on the sites, including attending a recent information session by Willow held over Zoom.

“The evidence they pointed me to shows that supervised consumption sites, like they have in Timmins and Sudbury, reduce overdoses, reduce calls to emergency services like police and ambulance, reduce infections, reduce the spread of diseases like hepatitis and HIV,” said Shoemaker.

Donna Hilsinger spoke to SooToday about the need for a supervised consumption site during her recent campaign launch event.

“I think it’s been proven to be a support system that can be very helpful, it keeps people safe and keeps people alive. That’s something we need to focus on. We need to figure out how we can make that happen,” said Hilsinger. “We need to not judge, we need to help and we need to provide the services and unfortunately we can’t fund those things, but we can advocate and we can partner, and we can talk about it.”

Candidate Tobin Kern said a supervised consumption site is the minimum of what should be done to keep Saulites safe in the face of a toxic drug crisis. He would like to see more meaningful conversations taking place in the community around safe supply, in which people who use drugs are prescribed drugs instead of relying on what is available on the street.

”A safe supply program would allow users to obtain a safe supply of substances, so their health could be better protected, and their focus could be on improving their lives, rather than pursuing money to get their needs met, potentially engaging in crime or being exploited in order to do so,” said Kern. ”This move would likely work to decouple substance use from organized crime as well. To me, I see this solution more effectively addresses substance users' health, stresses on emergency services and the health system, and potentially on police.”

Ozzie Grandinetti said he agrees Sault Ste. Marie should have a supervised consumption site.

“I do support it if it’s going to save a life,” he said.

Grandinetti said the application process is in the hands of the provincial and federal governments.

“They are free to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars to private entities but for something like this they are nowhere to be found,” said Grandinetti. “There’s only so much we can do at the municipal level.”

Last year, Sault Ste. Marie’s police chief Hugh Stevenson penned a statement to show his support for the establishment of a local supervised safe consumption site.

Ross Romano, who was recently reelected as Sault Ste. Marie’s member of provincial parliament, said he believes a supervised consumption site would be helpful to vulnerable people in the community struggling through addiction.

“While there is an element of provincial funding for a such a site, obtaining funding would be contingent on the municipal government zoning a site and the federal government providing an exemption allowing the site to operate lawfully,” said Romano. “I am supportive of a supervised consumption site in Sault Ste Marie and will help in any way I can.”

SooToday reached out to MP Terry Sheehan’s office last Thursday for comment but did not receive a response.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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