The Vancouver Island Health Authority says it will work with community partners to explore offering "broad-based supervised consumption services" for drug users in Victoria.
The affirmation comes as a local group, which had accused the health authority of inaction, pledges to open the city's first supervised injection site by year's end.
Yes2SCS – a coalition of health-care professionals, social workers, researchers and activists – has called for supervised consumption services for years, insisting that, in their absence, some drug users are dying needlessly of overdoses. In December, eight people in Greater Victoria died of suspected drug overdoses in just one week.
The health authority has said it supports such services in principle, but it declined to engage in conversations with Yes2SCS because "it was clear" new sites would not have been approved under the former federal government headed by the Conservatives, said Suzanne Germain, a VIHA spokeswoman.
"With a possible/likely shift on this issue in Canada, we look forward to working with government at all levels, as well as other stakeholders on this topic," she wrote in an e-mail.
Bruce Wallace, a member of the Yes2SCS steering committee, countered that the hurdles imposed by the previous government did not stop Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) from providing and supporting harm-reduction services.
"For the last decade, Island Health possessed the same opportunities to facilitate a federal exemption [from drug laws] that enabled the establishment of Insite in neighbouring [VCH], but no such action has ever been initiated," Mr. Wallace said.
Vancouver's Dr. Peter Centre, a facility for people living with HIV/AIDS, has offered supervised injection services since 2002, receiving its federal exemption in January. Insite, a dedicated supervised injection site in the city's Downtown Eastside, opened its doors in 2003.
"There is no possible way to deny that Coastal Health sustained [supervised consumption] services in one site without a federal exemption, as well as supported the exemption process for another, while no similar actions were taken by Island Health," Mr. Wallace said.
The federal, provincial and Victoria municipal governments now support supervised injection sites. The Victoria Police Department says it supports them in principle, as harm-reduction measures can contribute to the department's overall safety mission. B.C.'s medical health officer, Perry Kendall, has long championed supervised injection services, calling the Dr. Peter Centre's recent approval "a triumph of science, common sense and compassion over ideology."
Yes2SCS says it is now increasing efforts to complete the application for exemption from federal drug laws needed to open such a site – a process that was made considerably more difficult under the former government in Ottawa. According to the Respect For Communities Act, prospective operators must meet a laundry list of requirements, including extensive consultation with community partners; letters of approval from government, police and health professionals; and statistics and other information on crime and public nuisance in the area.
Shane Calder, a spokesman for Yes2SCS, said the group will also be working with service providers and other partners to answer such questions as which model would work best in Victoria, how many booths and nurses are needed, and what hours it should operate?
"We're not going to wait for VIHA to be present for those conversations. We're going to consult people who use drugs, we are going to consult the community," he said. "We will do this with or without the health authority. We would like them to be involved."
Kellie Hudson, another VIHA spokeswoman, said the health authority will engage with all interested community groups, partners and stakeholders, including Yes2SCS, "for broad-based supervised consumption services, which may not necessarily incorporate the model of a single supervised consumption site."
Yes2SCS is hoping to submit an application by the summer. The group is committed to seeing supervised injection services operating by the end of the year, despite the challenges posed by the Respect for Communities Act, Mr. Wallace said.
"The federal government has dramatically changed its position in regard to [supervised consumption sites], and therefore we do not expect that the purposefully obstructing policies related to [the act] and the federal exemption process will continue to be a determining factor in providing these critical health services," he said. "We expect the question of sanctioned or unsanctioned services to be outdated, and therefore we pursue both."
British Columbia recorded 465 illicit drug overdose deaths last year, at a rate per population not seen since 1998.