Canada will make it easier for cities to open supervised drug injection sites, as the country struggles to deal with a growing opioid overdose crisis that could claim thousands of lives this year.
Bill C-37, announced by the ministers of health and public safety on Monday afternoon, will strike down restrictive rules on opening the injection sites, and would also grant border agents new powers to search small packages when there’s reasonable grounds to believe they contain drugs or drug ingredients.
“The evidence is clear: well-established and well-maintained supervised consumption sites save lives,” federal health minister Jane Philpott told reporters. “These new measures should not come as a surprise.”
The proposed bill would replace the 26 criteria cities are required to meet as part of their applications for the sites with five general ones. The current criteria required to grant a specific exemption to open a safe injection site make it virtually impossible for a city or province to open one of the sites.
The legislation comes just days after a surprise announcement by British Columbia that it’s opening a number of safe injection sites in three cities without waiting for approvals from the federal government — sidestepping the rules by instead naming them “overdose prevention sites.”
B.C. is the first and only province to declare a public health emergency over the dramatic jump in fentanyl-related overdose deaths there. The province’s premier Christy Clark has also been urging Public Safety Canada to make it easier for border guards to seize packages at the border to curb the flow of bootleg fentanyl and the even deadlier carfentanil being shipped from China.
Over the last few months, drug advocates have been opening illegal “pop-up” supervised injection tents in the back alleys of Vancouver’s downtown eastside to deal with a rash of overdoses and the growing demand for the services.
Health authorities have been pressuring the government for months to repeal Bill C-2 — dubbed the Respect for Communities Act — implemented in 2015 by the previous Conservative government that made it more expensive and cumbersome for jurisdictions to apply for legal exemptions to operate safe injection sites. B.C.’s provincial health officer Perry Kendall previously told the Globe and Mail that Bill C-2 made it “virtually impossible … to open, or even think about opening up, such services in Canada.”
There’s currently only two federally-sanctioned supervised injection sites in Canada, both in Vancouver, even though there’s general consensus among health authorities that the sites are an essential way to combat fatal drug overdoses. Health Canada approved the second supervised injection site earlier this year, two years after its application was first submitted.
A 2011 Supreme Court decision specifically upheld the right of safe injection sites to operate.
According to data provided to VICE News by Health Canada, the department is currently reviewing eight applications for safe injection sites from Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
Montreal has been waiting more than a year and a half for a decision on its four applications, but a spokesperson for the Quebec health ministry said it expects to receive an exemption very soon, and won’t proceed with opening the sites until that happens. It also initially submitted incomplete applications. Montreal mayor Denis Coderre threatened the federal government last year that he would open the sites without federal approval if he didn’t get a response.
Toronto’s city council approved three safe injection sites this summer, but Councillor Joe Cressy, who oversaw the efforts, told VICE News last week that even if the federal exemptions did come through, the Ontario health ministry has been mum on whether they would provide the necessary funding for them. He estimates it would cost more than $2 million to open and operate the sites.
A spokesperson for the Ontario health department confirmed to VICE News that the ministry has no timeline to announce funding for the Toronto sites.
Ottawa and Hamilton are exploring opening safe injection sites, but the proposals have yet to be approved by the city councils.
In November, Health Canada and the Ontario health ministry co-hosted Canada’s first opioid summit to address the crisis. Both ministries rebuffed calls to declare a public health emergency, but in a joint “statement of action,” Health Canada pledged other measures including improving access to naloxone for remote First Nations communities and “reducing easy access to unnecessary opioids.”