Health Canada will reduce barriers to safe injection sites, says Philpott

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott is asking her officials to make it easier for communities to approve and set up safe injection sites because of what she calls a public health emergency.

Health minister says communities that want harm-reduction facilities should be able to get them

Health Minister Jane Philpott speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott is asking her officials to make it easier for communities to approve and set up safe injection sites because of what she calls a public health emergency.

"I've made it very clear to my department that there should be no unnecessary barriers for communities who want to open supervised consumption sites," Philpott said during question period in the House of Commons. "They are working with communities that are interested in this."

"Clearly, it's important that this is done right."

The minister made the comments in response to a question from Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies. He said Canada was on track for 2,000 overdose-related deaths this year and wanted to know what Philpott was doing to make safe-injection sites easier to set up. 

The Liberals have long supported the expansion of safe injection sites as a means of harm reduction for addicts, but have been slowed in approving new sites by legislation brought in under the Conservatives.

The Respect for Communities Act, which came in in 2015, requires 26 criteria to be met before the federal government can begin considering a new safe consumption site.

Critics of the law say that meeting all 26 criteria is onerous and takes so long that addicts literally die in back alleys because there is no supervised location where they can be treated when they overdose.

Philpott has told officials to take into consideration the public health emergency that is occurring in many communities and directed staff to review all 26 criteria and remove or amend anything that poses an unnecessary barrier to getting a site up and running. 

In Question Period, Health Minister Jane Philpott responds to a question from NDP MP Don Davies where she signals that more safe injection sites may soon be allowed to operate in Canada. 2:44

After question period Davies told reporters he welcomed the government's decision as "excellent" and "long overdue," but urged the Liberals to move quickly.

Davies said the opioid overdose crisis has been going on for months if not years, and every stakeholder in the country is unanimous that getting more supervised injection sites up now will save lives.

"This is a national health crisis, and in that kind of situation I expect the government to move very quickly, and they haven't moved quickly enough," he said. 

On Thursday Philpott said that she was determined to see progress. 

"We're also looking at the legislation under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," she said. "And if it becomes clear to us that we need to make some further amendments to that act to ... ensure that there are no barriers, then we will certainly do that."

Communities need a say: Tory critic

Conservative health critic Colin Carrie accused the Liberals of hypocrisy, saying they are keen to get social licence from communities when building pipelines, but are happy to circumvent the consultation process when it comes to safe injection sites. 

"The Respect for Communities Act gives police, residents and municipal leaders a say when it comes to opening an injection site in their community," he said. 

"Instead of making it easier for drug addicts to consume drugs, the Liberal government should support treatment and recovery programs to get addicts off drugs, and enact heavy mandatory minimum sentences to crack down on drug traffickers."

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