Community concerns mount as drug use normalization infiltrates small Ontario town

Cobourg residents gathered in opposition to drug normalization advocacy, spurred by the presence of a safe supply vendor at the local farmers' market. The controversy highlights a broader debate over the effectiveness and consequences of such initiatives in the face of rising violence and drug-related challenges in the community.

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A small group of concerned Cobourg residents gathered at the local farmers' market on Saturday, September 2 in opposition to safe supply and harm reduction advocacy efforts in the area.

This was done in response to a vendor from the advocacy group “Moms Stop the Harm” (MSTH) being present at the farmers' market one week earlier.

Their mission, according to their website, is to “advocate to end substance use related stigma, harms and death.” According to their 2022/2023 Annual Report, the largest donors to the group are taxpayer-funded government organizations, primarily based in British Columbia.

That’s the same province where harm reduction efforts have been ongoing for over 30 years and where the first needle exchange was implemented in 1989.

Yet MSTH acknowledges that British Columbia “experienced the highest rate of toxic drug fatalities in their history” this past year.

They say that the province “would be in even more dire circumstances” if it weren’t for safe supply and harm reduction advocacy efforts.

But it appears wherever this theory proliferates, crime and violence follow, and Cobourg has been dealing with a host of woes since the Ontario regional director Missy McLean, a registered social worker, began her efforts.

In March of this year, she brought neighbouring advocates to Cobourg through unsanctioned overdose prevention sites that go by the name of Tweak Easy.

The group advocates to stop the stigma of illicit drug use while running nomadic unsanctioned overdose prevention sites every Friday night from 7 – 10 PM.

That was, until they finally landed in a back alley called Henley’s Arcade because nothing says ‘stop the stigma’ like conducting concerted illegal activity in a back alley on a Friday night.

The group ran this site out of the back alley for weeks, citing protest, until this past Friday, when the town shut them down.

Advocates like McLean – who was uninvited to a Cobourg high school “day of empowerment” speaking engagement two months after beginning this illegal site – were shocked as the unsanctioned overdose prevention site was shut down a mere day after the ceremonious flag-raising on International Overdose Awareness Day in Cobourg.

At least one town councillor had death threats uttered at her mid-morning by two open-air drug users prior to the flag raising.

All of this comes as the town has grappled with gun violence at a homeless encampment at the local beach, steps away from a children's day camp, where leadership was silent for nearly a week before the town opted to enforce their own beach bylaws and relocated the encampment to Northumberland County office property at 600 William Street.

Cobourg saw a nearly 42% increase in violent crime in 2022, according to the 2022 Crime Severity Index, which spiked after a broad daylight Monday morning murder in the downtown core. 

It’s gotten out of hand,” says concerned resident Lois-Anne Johns. “The situation is that [people] are afraid to come downtown. We need mental health [supports].”

Jeff McLean, who heads Northumberland Residents opposing Drugs (NRoD), says that their community efforts have been well received at the market. “We don’t want to see people die, but we don’t want to see continued enabling all over the place and just looking the other when someone is using drugs instead of telling them ‘hey, that could end your life.’”

“We have to stand up as a community,” says Jackie Knox, another concerned resident.

McLean elaborates that there needs to be more stigma, not less.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that stigma is wrong because these drugs can kill you and who wants to die?”

Rebel News reached out to the farmers' market to inquire about the MSTH vendor.

Were they an approved market vendor and if so, what category do advocacy groups fall under as per the Market Associations Rules and Regulations?

Vendor definitions include businesses involved in “selling agricultural, food, art and artisan products including home-grown produce, home-made crafts and value-added products.”

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