Health minister says a change to Harper's anti-Insite law likely needed to meet rising overdose deaths

The former Conservative government's Respect for Communities Act has been widely criticized for making it virtually impossible for cities to open facilities like Vancouver’s Insite

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      Since fentanyl arrived on Canadian streets and illicit-drug overdose deaths began to skyrocket, cities across Canada have attempted to open supervised-injection sites like the one called Insite, which has operated in the Downtown Eastside since 2003.

      No city—including Vancouver, which has sought to open additional sites—has yet obtained the exemptions from federal drug laws that supervised-injection sites require to operate legally. That’s largely because of Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act, which the former Conservative government passed into law in June 2015.

      The bill requires regional governments and health-care providers to complete a long and arduous application process before opening a supervised-injection site.

      Today (November 10) at a fire hall in the Downtown Eastside, Health Minister Jane Philpott did not say that her Liberal government would repeal the Respect for Communities Act, but came very close.

      “I am working with my officials to make sure that we continue to make these sites available where necessary,” Philpott said in response to a reporter’s question. “It increasingly looks like that will require legislative changes, and we are actively working on a plan for the appropriate changes to be made. And we look forward to announcements in the very near future as to how we can facilitate access to sites in communities that require them.”

      Philpott was again asked if that meant changing federal laws that concern how supervised-injection sites receive federal permission to operate.

      “I’ve made it clear to my officials that I did not want there to be any unnecessary barriers to supervised-consumption sites in communities who ask for them,” Philpott replied. “And we had looked at the possibility of doing so within the current legislation, which was put in by the previous government. It is becoming increasingly apparent that it will require changes to that legislation. And we look forward to announcing very soon what those exact changes will be.”

      According to the latest numbers from the B.C. Coroners Service, there were 555 illicit drug-overdose deaths in B.C. during the first nine months of 2016. That contrasts with 508 during all of 2015 and 369 in 2014. A dangerous synthetic opioid called fentanyl has been detected in approximately 60 percent of fatal overdoses this year. That’s up from 31 percent in 2015 and 25 percent in 2014.

      Attending the press conference as an observer was Libby Davies, the former NDP MP who represented Vancouver East from 1997 to 2015. In an interview with the Straight, she asked why the Liberal government did not repeal the Respect for Communities Act a long time ago.

      “It’s been more than a year," she said. "Are they waiting for a perfect setup? Do what you can now. I have the sense of urgency that people in the community have, and, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have gotten through.”

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      Speaking alongside Philpott at the event was B.C. health minister Terry Lake.

      Last August, he cosigned a letter with Mayor Gregor Robertson that asked Health Canada to repeal the Respect for Communities Act and remove other barriers to the establishment of supervised-injection facilities for drug users. Today, Lake shared a story of how fentanyl has affected him on a personal level.

      “A friend of mine in Kamloops lost a nephew at a wedding in Kelowna, because the cocaine that these young men were trying—and these weren’t addicts we are talking about; this is recreational drug use—was laced with fentanyl,” he recounted. “And the 26-year-old man lost his life. And that family is grieving. There are families all over British Columbia that are grieving, whether they are the victim of an overdose from recreational use or through habitual use. It doesn’t matter. These are members of people’s families.”

      A number of other politicians and prominent members of the community were also in attendance, including the provincial government’s top doctor, Perry Kendall, and Vision Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer.

      Ann Livingston also came out for the event. She founded Vancouver’s first unsanctioned supervised-injection site back in 1994 and was instrumental in the establishment of North America’s first official supervised-injection site, Insite, in 2003. The executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Marion Allaart, was also there with a number of that group’s members. Standing close by was Dean Wilson, an activist who served as a plaintiff in the court case that saw Insite claim a 2011 victory over the former federal Conservative government in the Supreme Court of Canada.

      As the press conference began to wind down, Wilson approached the federal health minister and expressed frustration with a decision by Vancouver Coastal Health to eliminate funding for the Drug Users Resource Centre, a drop-in across the street from Oppenheimer Park.

      “The Drug Users Resource Centre opened, born of the last [fatal-overdose] epidemic in 1998,” Wilson said. “It’s now being closed on December 31.”

      That’s a story the Straight has covered extensively, calling attention to services the low-barrier community centre provides to Downtown Eastside residents who face extreme marginalization for mental-health and addiction issues.

      Philpott asked Wilson to supply her office with more information about the resource centre. The two then ended the exchange with a hug.

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