Vancouver's mayor and B.C.'s top health officials have formally requested Ottawa repeal legislation they say imposes unnecessary hurdles to opening new supervised consumption sites.
The call comes as overdose deaths in the province reach a level not seen in nearly 30 years of record keeping, driven in large part by fentanyl – a powerful synthetic opioid – being cut into the majority of street drugs. In the Metro Vancouver suburb of Delta, nine people overdosed in the span of 20 minutes this week after snorting fentanyl, believing it was cocaine. Early data from a nascent drug-testing initiative found that 90 per cent of heroin people brought into Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site, contained fentanyl.
Gregor Robertson, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall and others made the request in a letter sent to federal Health Minister Jane Philpott on Wednesday in response to a Globe and Mail report that said she had no immediate plans to repeal or modify the legislation.
"The Respect for Communities Act is a flawed, mean-spirited and ineffective piece of legislation that only serves to marginalize our most vulnerable residents and criminalize people suffering from addiction," the letter stated. "It was a deliberate attempt by the Conservative government to create barriers that block people from accessing life-saving harm-reduction services and medical care.
"The Act is in no way based on health science and should be repealed by your government as soon as possible."
Other signatories include Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, and Maxine Davis, executive director of the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, which has offered a supervised injection service since 2002.
Asked by The Globe about the legislation last week, Dr. Philpott – a vocal supporter of evidence-based harm-reduction initiatives and supervised consumption sites specifically – said her government is "continuing to follow how that is evolving" and would consider changes if they are required. However, there are no immediate plans to repeal or modify.
In a follow-up interview, Dr. Philpott reiterated that there could possibly be changes in the future.
"My department is working very closely with municipalities who have either submitted applications, or are about to submit applications, to let it be known that we want to facilitate [them]," she said.
"I want it to be known that if in fact it's deemed in our ongoing assessment that the legislation needs to be either amended or repealed, we're certainly open to doing so."
Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver-Centre, a medical doctor and the former opposition health critic, had said last October that her party would revisit the legislation brought in by the previous Conservative government.
"I have never, as a physician, understood how you could ignore good, solid scientific evidence and data and successful outcomes in other parts of the world," Dr. Fry said at the time. "For me, this is clear evidence. Addiction is a public-health issue, so what is it that we're doing here? Surely if you care about the lives of all Canadians, you don't separate Canadians into a group of people whose lives are worthless and a group of people whose lives are worthy."
An interview request with Dr. Fry on Thursday was forwarded to Dr. Philpott's office.
Ms. Davis said she has no doubts about the Liberal government's "earnest and sincere commitment to improving access to supervised consumption sites."
The act as is, and its name, are fundamentally flawed and disrespectful of people who inject drugs, she said.
"It's a blunt message that communities matter; [people who use drugs] don't," Ms. Davis said. "A new act, with a new name, would be an opportunity for them to lead a change in the tone of conversation between communities and their citizens who inject drugs."
At least 433 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. so far this year. Health officials fear that the figure could reach between 600 and 800 by year's end.