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An unidentified client injects drugs into herself at Insite, Vancouver’s first supervised injection site. (Photo courtesy of Colin Askey)

West End supervised injection site expecting federal approval within months

 Vancouver’s second supervised injection site, which has operated illegally for 13 years, may be getting its official permission to operate…

By Rohit Joseph , in City , on November 26, 2015

An unidentified client injects drugs into herself at Insite, Vancouver's first supervised injection site. (Photo courtesy of Colin Askey)
An unidentified client injects drugs into herself at Insite, Vancouver’s first supervised injection site. Photo: Colin Askey

 Vancouver’s second supervised injection site, which has operated illegally for 13 years, may be getting its official permission to operate within months. 

Maxine Davis, executive director of the Dr. Peter Centre, hopes that the West End facility will soon receive its long-awaited medical exemption from Health Canada. It opened its supervised-injection facility quietly around the same time that Insite, in the Downtown Eastside, got federal permission to open North America’s first legal injection site.

The Dr. Peter Centre submitted its application for medical exemption February 2014 in order to become approved as a supervised injection site after nearly 12 years of operating without permission.

“My hope is that the Dr. Peter Centre will receive confirmation of the exemption in a matter of months,” Davis said. “We are confident that our submission strikes a really great balance between providing health care that’s needed by our clients and the safety of the community that the Supreme Court has called for.”

Victoria health-care experts are also welcoming the change in government, which could lead supervised-injection sites in that city. 

Bruce Wallace, an associate professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work and advocate for “YES 2 Supervised Consumption Services” (YES2SCS),  says that introducing supervised injection sites in Victoria is not a new idea and that there is public support for these facilities in the city.

“To ignore illicit drug use is unsafe. Victoria is no different,” Wallace said.

YES2SCS compiled 10 years of recommendations for the opening of supervised injection sites in Victoria, including a report from British Columbia’s provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, who called for the immediate implementation of a supervised consumption program in 2008.

The city of Victoria has yet to file a federal application for its proposed three supervised injection sites, but Wallace says he “feels good about the city’s chances” when it approaches the Trudeau government.

Trudeau government will have to confront Harper health care policy

Maxine Davis, executive director of the Dr. Peter Centre, is optimistic about the future of supervised injection sites in Vancouver as well as the rest of Canada.
Maxine Davis, executive director of the Dr. Peter Centre, is optimistic about the future of supervised injection sites in Vancouver as well as the rest of Canada.

For the last several years, cities and health groups interested in starting injection sites have been stymied by a federal government opposed to the harm-reduction model of treating drug addiction.

In 2011, the Harper government attempted to shut down Insite through a legal battle in the Supreme Court. The court unanimously ruled in favour of Insite, stating that closing the facility would contravene the Charter of Rights by threatening the lives of injection drug users

The Conservatives’ Bill C-2, also known as the Respect for Communities Act, put in several regulatory roadblocks for supervised injection sites.

The bill requires that any city in Canada wanting to open a supervised injection facility obtain permission from its local chief of police, get approval from the provincial premier, have public consultations, and satisfy 26 new requirements in order to be granted an exemption or federal approval. Bill C-2 was passed in March by the Harper government and received royal assent in June.

“The problem with this bill is that it is now harder to set up a supervised injection site than it is to build a pipeline,” said Alain Giguere, a former New Democratic Party MP during a House of Commons debate in March.

But Bill C-2 may no longer be as obstructive with the Trudeau government now in power.  

“Despite the fact that Bill C-2 still exists, and will probably continue to exist for quite some time, there are ways and means that may be found by Health Canada to work within the federal government to have a more reasonable interpretation of the bill,” Davis said.

Davis believes that the Dr. Peter Centre will be able to bypass some of Bill C-2’s requirements.

Similarly, Montreal is expecting federal approval for its supervised injection facilities in the near future, even though the law is still in place.

Health Canada did not respond to The Thunderbird’s calls or several e-mail requests.

The case for supervised injection sites

Months before his federal election victory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed interest in adopting Vancouver’s harm-reduction model of supervised injection sites like Insite on a national scale.

“I think that there is much that we can and should be doing around harm reduction. Insite is a great model of that, and I certainly want to see more safe-injection sites opened around the country,” Trudeau said at a press conference held at University of British Columbia in March.

M-J Milloy, a researcher at the Centre for Excellence in HIV and AIDS at the University of British Columbia, says Insite reduces overdose deaths and HIV infection among illicit drug users.
M-J Milloy, a researcher at the Centre for Excellence in HIV and AIDS at the University of British Columbia, says Insite reduces overdose deaths and HIV infection among illicit drug users.

M-J Milloy, a researcher at the Centre for Excellence in HIV and AIDS at UBC, said there is strong evidence for the public health benefits of Insite.  

“Before Insite was established, there was roughly one person a day dying of an overdose in the Downtown Eastside,” said Milloy.

Milloy and his research team discovered that in the two-year period after Insite opened in 2003, fatal overdoses dropped by 35 per cent in the Downtown Eastside. The facility also helped reduce the spread of HIV infection with its access to clean needles and condoms.

However, Milloy says the need for more supervised injection sites in Vancouver is still a pressing issue.

“There are 13 injection booths which we observed from the data we gathered from the [Insite] facility, that are in use the entire time it is opened. There are often line-ups outside the door to access the booths.”