Today (December 12) the federal government unveiled sweeping reforms aimed at making it easier for cities to establish supervised-injection facilities for drug users.
At the same time, it announced plans to loosen restrictions on Canadian border police and allow them to search small packages for potent synthetic drugs like fentanyl that are dangerous even in very small quantities.
The changes are part of what the new Liberal government calls the “New Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy”. It’s a major rebuke of the former Conservative administration’s tough-on-crime tactics, consisting of a multipronged approach to addiction similar to Vancouver’s “four pillars” strategy.
Broadly, the new strategy focuses on prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement. It comes as the country and, especially, British Columbia struggles with an unprecedented increase in illicit-drug overdose deaths.
At a news conference in Ottawa, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott described the plan in terms of how it differs from the former Stephen Harper government’s approach to drugs.
“It is well known to Canadians that we are facing a serious and growing public-health crisis related to the matter of opioids and opioid-overdose deaths,” Philpott began.
“The big picture of the controlled-drugs-and-substances strategy is that it will replace the national antidrug strategy,” she continued. “It will reframe problematic substance use as the public-health issue that it is. It will return the lead on the Canadian drugs-and-substances strategy to the Minister of Health rather than the Minister of Justice. And we will reinstate harm reduction as a key pillar in this strategy. It will be supported as well by the pillars of prevention and treatment and the supporting pillar of law enforcement.”
The changes will come via Bill C-37, which was introduced in the House of Commons today. If adopted into law—a process that will likely take several months—the new legislation would see a repeal of Harper’s Respect for Communities Act, which was widely criticized for making it all but impossible for cities to establish injection facilities like Vancouver’s Insite.
“Specifically, Bill C-37 proposes to simplify the legislative requirements for communities who want and need to open and operate supervised-consumption sites,” Philpott said. “We will repeal the 26 application criteria of the former government’s Bill C-2. They will be removed in their entirety. They will be replaced by a general requirement that the site in question must demonstrate evidence of the public health and public safety benefits of the site.”
As a foundation for the new rules for supervised-injection facilities, Philpott cited the 2011 Supreme Court of Canada decision in favour of Insite.
That ruling stipulates such a facility must be allowed to open if it meets five criteria: that there is a need, that there is a positive impact on crime, that a regulatory structure exists to support the facility, that resources are available to maintain the site, and that there is support for the facility within the community.
Vancouver presently has applications for two supervised-injection sites waiting for approval from Ottawa. Those were filed in September for sites at 330 Heatley Street, near the intersection of Cordova Street, and at 528 Powell Street, between Jackson Avenue and Princess Avenue.
On December 8, the B.C. government surprised many by announcing it would not wait for federal approval for new sites. It revealed two locations for supervised-injection rooms it opened to drug users that very day.
In a telephone interview with the Straight regarding that development, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said action was taken out of necessities created by the fentanyl crisis.
“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.”
Speaking at a news conference today in the Downtown Eastside, Lake applauded the actions taken by his federal counterpart.
“I’m really happy,” he began. “I think this is a direct result of Premier [Christy] Clark sending me and coming with me to Ottawa to talk to people about what is going on here in B.C. We’ve been writing to the minister—the former minister and this minister—about safe-consumption sites and the terrible barriers that existed before. So to see us going from 26 criteria down to five, simplifying that means we can get these sites up and running sooner and we can save lives. And, importantly, reduce infection, reduce transmission of things like HIV, hepatitis and connect people with the services they really need for long-term recovery.”
During the first 10 months of 2016, 622 people in B.C. died of an illicit-drug overdose. That’s up from 510 in 2015 and 370 the year before. Fentanyl has been detected in about 60 percent of deaths this year.
Month-to-month numbers dipped last summer, prompting authorities to suggest the situation was improving. But in September, deaths increased from 49 the previous month to 57, and then to 63 in October.
While statistics for November have not yet been released, Lake signalled that the recent increase is likely to continue.
“With the September numbers, a lot of us were cautiously optimistic that we had turned a corner,” he said. “When we saw 60 [deaths] in October, you know, we still thought maybe we’re still plateauing here. I understand the numbers will be higher in November. We’ll get the numbers later this week, but that really is why we are doing all that we are doing with the overdose-prevention sites. Because we don’t feel like we’ve turned a corner yet.”