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Money coming to Belleville, Ont., for overdose crisis, Premier Ford says

Belleville mayor Neil Ellis speaks about recent rash of overdoses during a press conference in Belleville, Ont., in this Wednesday, February 7, 2024 handout photo. Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the province will help an eastern Ontario city with funding to help them during an overdose crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - City of Belleville

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — An eastern Ontario city dealing with an acute overdose crisis will soon be getting provincial funding, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday while also pledging to discuss longer-term solutions for the community. 

Ford said he's going to sit down with Neil Ellis, the mayor of Belleville, Ont., to talk about ways to address the problem in the city, including through supports such as a community health hub. 

"We're going to try to support them," Ford said. "They need an influx of money right away. We're going to get that done, and then we're going to sit down and talk to them about building."

Belleville declared a state of emergency last week after a spate of overdoses in its downtown core overwhelmed first responders.

On Monday, the mayor specifically asked for funding to expand a social and health services hub, saying it needed $2 million in provincial funds to move the project forward. 

Belleville also wants a detox centre to help in its ongoing battle with toxic street drugs.

Ford said the province would be helping the city of about 55,000 residents.

"I always believe in the rehabilitation centres and supporting communities," Ford said, adding that police needed to pursue drug dealers distributing toxic drugs.

"We need to catch them, we need to throw them in jail and that's exactly what we're going to do."

Last week in Belleville, emergency crews responded to 17 overdoses in just 24 hours, and the majority of them occurred within a two-hour window on Feb. 6.

The sudden and overwhelming demand for ambulances and opioid overdose-reversing naloxone stretched emergency services to their "breaking point," officials said.

The city needs a well-staffed location where homeless people can get food, use a shower and access health care and substance-use support, officials said.

The opioid crisis has gripped the province for years and deaths have nearly doubled since 2019, with a significant spike since the pandemic began in 2020.

Data from Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner shows fentanyl, a powerful opioid, contributes to the majority of opioid deaths in the province. 

Last week, the coroner released data that showed a nine-per-cent decrease in opioid toxicity deaths in the third quarter of 2023 compared to the second quarter of that year, although deaths are 64 per cent higher than in 2019.

On average, 216 people died from an opioid overdose each month in Ontario in 2023.

Health Canada has pointed to tainted and toxic street drugs as the reason behind the worsening opioid overdose crisis.

Some medical professionals and advocates have called on the province to provide a "safe supply" of prescription opioids as a solution to the toxic drugs found on the streets.

British Columbia was the first province to offer "prescribed safer supply" in 2020. In November last year, more than 4,000 people accessed safe drugs.

When asked Tuesday for his thoughts on safe supply in Ontario, Ford spoke instead about supervised consumption and treatment sites. The premier's office later said the government is not considering a safe supply of drugs.

Last October, Michael Tibollo, the associate minister of mental health and addictions, gave The Canadian Press his thoughts on safe supply.

"Every time you increase supply, you increase supply," he said. "If you want to call it safe supply or you want to call it increased supply, this is why on the street it leads to the same conclusion."

Official Opposition and New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said the province is "out of touch" with the needs of the people.

"The addiction crisis in our province has worsened considerably under this premier's watch and his remarks today show that he does not have a clue what to do," Stiles said.

The province is currently conducting a review of Ontario's 17 consumption and treatment sites and has paused expansion of them. That review came after a 44-year-old mother of two was killed by a stray bullet near a consumption site in Toronto last summer following a fight between three men.

The Ontario Drug Policy Research Network concluded in a literature review last fall that safe opioid supply programs are beneficial to patients through better clinical outcomes and improvements in mental health.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2024. 

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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