Ottawa will introduce a bill Monday that is expected to reduce barriers to opening and operating supervised drug-consumption sites in Canada.
The move comes days after B.C. announced it would open several "overdose prevention sites" without federal approval as an emergency measure to counter the province's highest death toll on record due to illicit drugs. As well, carfentanil – a powerful synthetic opioid many times more toxic than fentanyl – has now been detected in three provinces and is beginning to fuel another surge in overdoses, creating a new sense of urgency.
More than 622 people have died of illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C alone, so far this year; the year-end tally is expected to surpass 750. Supervised injection sites offer clean supplies, reducing the risk of blood-borne illnesses, and have staffers on hand to administer naloxone, an opioid antagonist, should someone overdose.
The previous Conservative government introduced Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act, after fighting against Insite, Vancouver's public supervised injection site, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court in 2011 sided with the Downtown Eastside facility and ordered the government to stop interfering.
The act includes more than two dozen costly and time-consuming requirements that prospective operators must meet before being granted the necessary exemption from federal drug laws to run such a site. They include: holding extensive community consultations; collecting data and other information on crime, public nuisance and inappropriately discarded drug paraphernalia in the vicinity of the site; and conducting criminal-record checks for every staff member going back 10 years.
The legislation received royal assent in June, 2015, and amends the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Critics have fought the Respect for Communities Act since it was introduced, calling it a deliberate effort to hamper the harm reduction service. Aside from an approval for the 14-year-old Dr. Peter Centre, and a renewal for the 13-year-old Insite, no new applications have been approved to date.
The amendments to the bill will be introduced by federal Health Minister Jane Philpott.
It is not yet known exactly what amendments will be sought. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said he hopes for a full repeal of the Harper-era changes.
"When the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, they said, as a general rule, that the minister should approve these requests for exemptions when it was clear the balance favoured health inputs and minimal harms to public safety," he said.
"I'm hoping whatever changes have been [proposed] will reflect that direction from the Supreme Court and will reflect what [Dr. Philpott] heard and learned, particularly when she visited B.C."
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, the Canadian Nurses Association and various others have also called for the act's repeal.
The health minister, a physician, has been vocal in her support of evidence-based treatment, including supervised injection service. Faced with complaints about the legislation, Dr. Philpott took a wait-and-see approach, eventually acknowledging last month that it posed undue barriers and that changes appeared necessary.
"Any piece of legislation has to go through a certain number of steps before it's formalized, but I recognize that people are dying every day," she said on Nov. 10. "We are committed to making sure we make these services available."
This is not the first piece of Conservative legislation relating to drug use that the Liberal government will undo. After Health Canada in 2013 granted special access for a few dozen severely addicted heroin users in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to receive prescription heroin outside of a clinical trial, previous Conservative Health Minister Rona Ambrose swiftly introduced legislation to ban physicians from prescribing "dangerous drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD."
That was overturned in September, with Health Canada saying a "significant body of evidence" supports heroin-assisted treatment.
The Liberal government is also months away from introducing legislation to legalize marijuana, in contrast with the previous government, which vehemently opposed such a move.