Today (December 8) two new supervised-injection sites for drug users will open in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The following week, similar facilities will open in Surrey and Victoria. Later this month, additional sites will open in all three jurisdictions.
The surprise announcement made by B.C.’s Ministry of Health marks a major policy shift that could change how supervised-injection sites are established across Canada.
Up until now, programs like Vancouver’s Insite facility have required exemptions from federal drug laws, and the former Conservative government made those exemptions very difficult to obtain.
The two sites opening today do not have exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that authorities previously insisted they required to open.
In a telephone interview, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said today’s action was taken out of necessities created by the fentanyl crisis and unpreceded numbers of drug overdose deaths.
“We can’t wait for federal changes in order to save people’s lives,” he told the Straight. “We know people are using in alleys, they are using in their rooms, and they are not where the people who can help them are. And so in the face of this crisis, we really just wanted to do more.”
Lake said that B.C. was in contact with Health Canada and the Ministry of Public Safety and that those bodies were given prior notice about the plan that his office put in motion today.
“I’m assured that we’re not contravening the federal law,” he said. “We are essentially just providing first responders and other health professionals in an area where they may be needed.
“We’ve looked at it and we think we’re on safe ground here,” he continued. “Under the Emergency Health Services Act, I can make this kind of order in the face of a public-health emergency.”
Lake noted one key difference in how the new sites will operate is that unlike Insite, they will not supply drug users with equipment such as syringes. He added a more detailed explanation of they will function will be delivered by B.C. top doctor, Perry Kendall, at a news conference scheduled for this afternoon.
“We don’t want to break the law, obviously, but at the same time, our major concern is saving lives,” Lake said.
The addresses of the two sites opening in the Downtown Eastside are 177 East Hastings Street, with access via a door that faces an adjacent alley, and 380 East Hastings Street, which is the headquarters of a nonprofit called the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
Health Canada did not immediately make a representative available for an interview. In response to the Straight’s request for comment, a spokesperson supplied a statement Health Minister Jane Philpott delivered on November 18.
“The previous legislation, as you know, has widely been perceived to introduce unreasonable barriers, and I share the concerns that have been expressed,” she said. “I think it’s not unknown to this group that I am a strong proponent, a strong advocate for supervised consumption sites in communities that want and need them. I know that they work. They save lives. They prevent infection. They provide safe access to health care.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson is quoted in a B.C. Health Ministry release expressing support for the new measures.
“We are seeing unprecedented tragedy with the overdose crisis and it's putting extreme pressure on Vancouver first responders and front line workers,” he said. “These new overdose prevention sites and mobile medic unit will help provide relief that is desperately needed.”
During the first 10 months of 2016, 622 people in British Columbia died of an illicit-drug overdose death. That’s up from 510 in 2015 and 370 the year before. Fentanyl has been detected in about 60 percent of deaths this year. Despite those unprecedented numbers, it looks like things are going to get worse.
On November 29, the B.C. Coroners Service confirmed that a synthetic opioid called carfentanil was found near the body of a man who died in East Vancouver two weeks earlier. A news release warned the drug was significantly more dangerous than fentanyl, describing it as “the most toxic opioid used commercially”.
According to a B.C. Health Ministry release, “several more” injection sites will open in the Downtown Eastside later this month.
In addition, the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health are using a vacant lot at 58 West Hastings—recently home to a large group of homeless campers—to establish a “mobile medical unit”.
The release states that location is being made available for emergency responders to bring people who have suffered a drug overdose, with one of the goals being to alleviate pressure on St. Paul’s Hospital.
In Victoria, the provincial capital’s first “overdose prevention sites”, as the government is calling them, are scheduled to open sometime next week at 919 Pandora Avenue and the Johnson Street Community building at 844 Johnson Street. The Pandora facility will be open to everyone while the second location is only for that’s building’s tenants.
Later this month, sites in Surrey will open at the Quibble Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre at 13670 94A Avenue and at a “mobile medical support unit” located at 135A Street.
On inspiration for the plan, Lake gave partial credit to an unsanctioned program that’s operated in the Downtown Eastside since mid-September. In two back alleys, former parks commissioner Sarah Blyth and her team established a pair of pop-up injection tents where staff give addicts a safer place to use drugs.
“I woke up yesterday at 4 o’clock in the morning and was thinking about the pop-up tent,” Lake recounted. “And the real challenge that we see is the cold weather. People have a combination of overdosing and hypothermia, so I know we had to do more. So we pulled the team together quickly, Vancouver Coastal had some plans in place. And so we just expedited everything.”
“The goal here is to keep people alive,” he added.