Canada’s health minister has said that the new Liberal government is open to the idea of reviewing legislation passed by the former Conservative government that makes it difficult for cities to establish supervised-injection sites for drug users.
“I want it to be known that if in fact it’s deemed in our ongoing assessment that the legislation needs to be either amended or repealed, we’re certainly open to doing so,” Jane Philpott told the Globe and Mail.
The minister’s comment came just one day after the Straight reported that Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and B.C. health minister Terry Lake had sent a letter to Health Canada requesting that the Liberal government remove barriers to the establishment of supervised-injection facilities.
That letter asks specifically for the government to repeal the Respect for Communities Act, which is also known as Bill C-2.
The bill requires regional governments and health-care providers that would seek to open a supervised-injection site to complete a long and arduous application process. It has been widely criticized as making it virtually impossible for cities to open facilities like the one that has operated near the intersection of Main and East Hastings streets since 2003.
Speaking to the Globe, Philpott said that while the law remains in place, Health Canada will assist local jurisdictions to help them make their way through that framework.
“My department is working very closely with municipalities who have either submitted applications, or are about to submit applications, to let it be known that we want to facilitate [them],” she said.
The government of Justin Trudeau has signalled it is supportive of harm-reduction measures. For example, in May 2016 Health Canada proposed a regulatory change that would let doctors apply for special access to prescription heroin, also called diacetylmorphine, and offer it to patients as they see fit.
The letter signed by Robertson, Lake, and other B.C. officials, places the request for easier access to supervised-injection sites in the context of rising numbers of drug-overdose deaths.
“At a time when overdose deaths are surging in British Columbia and the Provincial Health Officer has declared a public health emergency regarding fentanyl, we urge you to reconsider your position and begin steps to repeal the Respect for Communities Act, so that people who need access to medical treatment can get it as soon as possible," it reads
According to the latest numbers from the B.C. Coroners Service, there were 371 illicit drug-overdose deaths in B.C. during the first six months of 2016. That’s a 74.2-percent increase over the same period during the previous year.
A dangerous synthetic opioid called fentanyl has been detected in approximately 60 percent of fatal overdoses in 2016. That’s up from 31 percent in 2015, 25 percent in 2014, 15 percent in 2013, and five percent in 2012.
In recent years, several cities across Canada have moved to establish supervised-injection facilities.
Toronto city council has passed a motion in support of three sites, Victoria’s mayor has repeatedly spoken in favour of the idea, and Montreal has begun preparing an application for a federal exemption that supervised-injection sites require to operate legally in Canada.
Those efforts, however, appear stalled or significantly hampered while former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Respect for Communities Act remains in effect.