The House of Commons has passed a bill that critics say will impede the operations of supervised consumption sites such as Vancouver’s Insite and endanger severely addicted Canadians.
Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act, consists of a host of new regulations that will make it much more difficult for a community service provider to open one of the harm-reduction sites. The new legislation will also complicate the process by which existing sites have to apply annually for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to operate.
The bill passed its third reading in the House on Monday, by a vote of 143-108, and had its first reading in the Senate on Tuesday.
Adrienne Smith, a health and drug policy lawyer with Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society, said the bill’s guiding principle is that the exemptions that allow supervised consumption sites to operate will be granted only in exceptional circumstances.
This is in contrast to a 2011 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in which the court found that supervised injection sites have been proven to save lives and that the health minister’s failure to provide an exemption was in violation of drug users’ constitutional rights to life and security of the person.
“The Supreme Court of Canada said the minister has discretion, but that discretion must be operated in accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Ms. Smith said. The court, at that time, ordered the Harper government to stop interfering.
Under Bill C-2, facilities that wish to run a supervised consumption site must meet a lengthy list of requirements, including: a letter from the head of the local police force; statistics and other information on crime, public nuisance and inappropriately discarded drug paraphernalia in the vicinity of the site; and a report on consultations with “a broad range of community groups.”
Background checks will also be required for those in charge at the facility, along with key staff members.
The Canadian Nurses Association says it is “disappointed” that the bill was passed in the House and “concerned” by the Conservative government’s “tough-on-crime position.”
“A government truly committed to public health and safety would enhance access to prevention and treatment services instead of building more barriers,” the association, which represents 135,000 registered nurses, said in a statement.
A statement to parliamentarians opposing the bill includes the names of about 120 signatories, including the Canadian AIDS Society, Vancouver Coastal Health and Toronto Public Health.
Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose has been clear in her opposition to harm reduction measures, saying she instead favours “harm elimination.” Eve Adams, former parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health, has defended the legislation by emphasizing the importance of thorough consultation with communities and other stakeholders before such a site can open.
But Ms. Smith says the additional requirements are so onerous that even a compassionate health minister could be unable to grant an exemption.
“What this bill does is prevent a minister from being able to exercise their discretion in accordance with the Charter,” she said. “It forecloses potential in lots of places and it makes existing centres face really unreasonable barriers to their continued operation.”
Anna Marie D’Angelo, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, which funds and operates Insite, noted that there have been more than 1.8 million injections done under the supervision of nurses at the facility.
“There have been no overdose deaths at Insite despite more than 1,500 overdose interventions, some of which have included full respiratory arrest,” she said.
A study published in The Lancet in 2011 found that fatal overdose deaths within 500 metres of Insite decreased by 35 per cent in the first few years of the facility’s opening. In comparison, overdose deaths decreased by only 9 per cent in the rest of Vancouver.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Eve Adams as the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health. In fact, that is her former job and she is currently a Liberal MP.Report Typo/Error