Raffi sat me down and demonstrated how to reverse an overdose, step by step. It was 2007 and we were sitting in his office holding vials of naloxone the antidote to an opioid overdose. We talked for an hour about the need for overdose prevention and the recent losses. Our friend Dan Bigg was the architect of take home naloxone. In 1996, he started getting it in to the hands of drug users. He died this past summer of an overdose. Raffi my mentor and a mentor and friend to so many died of an overdose February 16, 2017 when he was in Vancouver attending a meeting on supervised injection services.
The lobby of the health centre I have worked at since 2006 was bustling with people who used drugs, hanging out in the lobby, accessing the needle exchange, attending programs and events. So many of them are dead now. Raffi the program coordinator and founder of Counterfeit, he’s gone too. Their names engraved in the 5ft copper flame which stands erect outside South Riverdale Community Health Centre dedicated to the lives of people in the east end of Toronto who have died as a result of the drug war.
“How do you witness so much death, that you know is preventable and do nothing?”
Raffi would say each time someone dies, we have failed them. That’s a lot of weight to carry on our shoulders. I can’t carry that weight. I already carry the deep scars of loss and a very broken heart which is constantly being shattered. We aren’t responsible for the oppressive system we are forced to live in but we are responsible to try and change it. We didn’t fail Raffi, he died from the toxic drug supply and we’ve been trying our best to save lives as governments shirk their responsibility to help us.
How do you witness so much death, that you know is preventable and do nothing? On August 12, 2017 a group of drug users, health care and harm reduction workers and allies set up tents in Moss Park to respond to the overdose crisis which has taken the lives of thousands of people. By the end of 2018 there were 9 supervised consumption/overdose prevention sites open in Toronto, all working to respond to this public health emergency. The site of survival ran illegally in the park for a year before moving inside and saved 251 lives. Last month the site reversed 90 overdoses and had 3,000 visits. It waits for approval to continue to operate under the new conservative government.
Neighbourhood Trust is a collaborative, evolving project that examines the state of affordable housing in Toronto through the lens of those directly affected.
Reversing overdoses is not enough – the solution to this emergency is ending prohibition and providing a safe drug supply. We can’t blame people for using drugs to soothe their broken hearts, to disrupt the peril of life, to manage their pain, to work their bodies like machines to make an income, to dance all night and feel some joy.
I miss feeling something longer than sorrow.
And so, we wait for the emergency response to come.
Zoë is a long time harm reduction and drug user advocate that lives and works in Toronto. She is the co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and helps co-ordinate the Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site which ran unsanctioned for nearly a year before receiving Ministry of Health funding and moving indoors. The Moss Park OPS was successful at helping to change the overdose response in Ontario and the general public’s understanding of the overdose crisis. She is a graduate student currently enrolled at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, focusing on people’s experience with the drug treatment system.