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Insite, in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver, is North America's only supervised injection site.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Quebec government has given the green light to a project introducing facilities in the Montreal area where drug users can legally and safely inject themselves, but it's still far from becoming a reality.

Final approval for so-called safe-injection sites rests with the federal government, which has strongly criticized offering drug users legal spaces to consume illegal substances.

In order to operate a safe-injection site, the federal government must grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Ottawa's refusal to renew the exemption for Vancouver's injection site – the only one of its kind in Canada – was unconstitutional because it deprived people access to potentially life-saving medical care.

In response, the Conservative government tabled strict new legislation on safe-injection sites giving the federal health minister discretion to approve an application only under "exceptional circumstances" and only after applicants fulfil a long list of onerous obligations.

The bill is currently being debated in the Senate.

Health Canada said in a statement that it doesn't publicly comment on applications for such exemptions and there is no timetable for a decision on permits for four Montreal sites – three located in community organizations and a fourth that will be mobile.

Canada's only legal, operating, safe-injection site – called Insite – has been operating in Vancouver since 2003.

Lucie Charlebois, Quebec's junior public health minister, said safe-injection sites reduce the risk of drug overdoses and offer other social and health benefits.

Montreal is also in favour of the project.

Catherine Maurice, spokeswoman for Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, said the safe-injection file "is a priority for the mayor."

She said the federal government's approval should be a formality and while the city acknowledges it can't be given a definitive date for when it can go ahead with the project, "we won't wait for the federal government forever."

If the project gets the go-ahead from Ottawa, the first injection site will be in Cactus Montreal, a community organization that works to prevent blood-born and sexually transmitted infections and which created North America's first needle-exchange program in 1989.

The chairman of Cactus Montreal's board of directors, Louis Letellier de St-Just, said Thursday he is happy with the development but doesn't think the federal government will share in his enthusiasm.

Letellier de St-Just said the federal bill "is like a vice," squeezing organization like his because the proposed law makes it extremely difficult to open and maintain a safe-injection facility.

"They closed the rules really tightly," he said. "And I think the bill runs against (the spirit) of the 2011 Supreme Court decision."