Canada’s Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor says it is clear that supervised drug-consumption sites save lives and is calling recent comments by an Alberta minister questioning their merits deeply concerning.
“When I hear comments from people who indicate that they’re not sure about the validity of these services, I have to say it concerns me,” she said in an interview in Surrey, B.C.
Ms. Petitpas Taylor was asked about recent remarks by Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, who is in charge of overseeing a review of supervised drug-consumption sites in that province. In a July 16 Calgary Sun column by Rick Bell, Mr. Luan appeared to suggest that the sites “feed a disease” and serve only to revive people from overdoses.
“Then we’ll do it again tomorrow and we’ll do it 10 times the day after tomorrow,” Mr. Luan is quoted as saying. “To me, that’s not the solution. You’re not addressing the real issue … Yes, you can keep them alive one more day but you’re not going to save them. They’re going to die the minute you’re not with them.”
The same day, in response to a tweet that said research backs the efficacy of supervised consumption sites, Mr. Luan wrote: “These reviews never reference the impact to the surrounding community & business. They only focused on the benefits of harm reduction to the users. How much of the so called ‘evidence-based research’ is funded by the million dollar Pharma industry? Full disclosure is needed.” Mr. Luan has since deleted that tweet.
Ms. Petitpas Taylor said that the previous Harper government had fought Insite, Canada’s first supervised consumption site, all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. And Ontario’s conservative government halted the opening of new sites while conducting a review, ultimately cutting funding to several last fall and allowing remaining sites to operate under a “consumption and treatment services” model.
“As a government, we will continue to support these services,” Ms. Petitpas Taylor said.
Steve Buick, a spokesman for Mr. Luan, said the minister’s comments should not be interpreted as a statement of opposition to the sites.
“The minister wasn’t signalling a decision on SCSs, he was making the point that SCSs alone are not enough; that his priority is to add more services to help people get off of drugs,” Mr. Buick wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Buick added that Mr. Luan “thinks the emphasis on harm reduction, including opioid replacement therapy, has been too narrow” and there should be more emphasis on abstinence-based therapy.
Rebecca Haines-Saah, an assistant professor in the department of community health services at the University of Calgary, said supervised consumption sites not only save lives but, for many, are also a first step in accessing health care.
“My long-standing concern about this proposed ‘review’ is deepening. If the minister responsible is demonstrating no understanding of how harm reduction and public-health research works, how can we have any confidence that the results will be credible?"
Hakique Virani, a public health and addictions medicine specialist at the University of Alberta, emphasized that harm reduction does not run counter to abstinence-based recovery and that one can support both at the same time.
“One of the canned sentences that we continue to hear is that there are no foregone conclusions with these reviews, that there are no prejudgments made," Dr. Virani said.
"But when we see these types of comments, and the types of positions that the associate minister is outwardly endorsing, it doesn’t leave us feeling confident about the ability for this province to protect human health in the face of a chemical hazard like this.”
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