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Montreal Plans to Open Safe Injection Sites With or Without Federal Approval

The first and only legal clinic in North America that allows users to inject drugs under supervision, and without threat of arrest, is in Vancouver. Montreal plans to add four more.

by Brigitte Noël
Jun 4 2015, 11:45pm

Photo by Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre vowed on Thursday to open a batch of safe injection sites in the city, regardless of the Canadian government's opposition.

Coderre and Richard Massé, the city's director of public health, announced that both the province and Montreal's city council were on board with the plan for four safe injection sites in the Quebec metropolis.

The first and only legal clinic in North America that allows users to inject drugs under supervision, and without threat of arrest, is in Vancouver.

The Montreal project — which has been in the works for over a decade — has long been delayed by what community activists call "political games."

"We've been talking about this for years, and there have been many sticks in our spokes," Bernard St-Jacques, a community organizer, told VICE News.

"It's time to stop wasting time and just go ahead with it," said St-Jacques, who represents RAPSIM, a network of organizations that help homeless and at-risk individuals.

Technically, the plan now requires the federal government's approval, which is granted in the form of an exemption from Canada's drug laws.

But the Harper government has been vehemently opposed to the idea of safe injection sites, opting to tackle the country's drug use problem by doling out longer jail sentences and funding the fight against drug cartels in Central America.

In 2008, the Conservatives tried to shut down Vancouver's Insite clinic. Their efforts were eventually overruled by a 2011 Supreme Court decision that stated that depriving the public of this service would have "grave consequences."

The court found the clinic was "sav(ing) lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."

Montreal now wants its estimated 4,000 regular intravenous drug users to have access to the same life-saving services.

The Quebec government made the official exemption request in late April, but Health Canada told the CBC there was "no timetable" for the federal decision. During Thursday's press conference, Coderre said the project was about health care, not politics. He wants the clinics to open within the next few months.

Following the announcement, federal Minister of Health Rona Ambrose hinted at further delay, saying the federal government was working on a piece of legislation that could require the project to go through a series of public consultations.

St-Jacques says it's a matter of political will. "You asked us to lay it out, black on white, and to meet all the criteria," he says. "Now that's done."

"We can say we'll do it independently, and we'll see where that leads." 

Follow Brigitte Noël on Twitter: @brige_noel

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