Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has approved three new supervised injection sites in Montreal.

The move is being taken to help address the public health crisis of opioid overdoses and deaths across the country.

According to a statement released by Philpott's office, the Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre applied for the exemption under the law for the sites, and will be responsible for them — although the sites will be operated by three Montreal community organizations at ground level.

Two of the centres will be located in the downtown borough of Ville-Marie. The first will be operated by CACTUS Montreal, while the other will be run by Spectre de rue. The third location in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, in the city's east end, will be operated by Dopamine.

"Our approach must be comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate and evidence-based," the statement says.

Health Canada maintains that supervised injection sites, where drug users can inject or inhale drugs, are the right approach to combat drug abuse.

"At these sites, people who use drugs are supervised by qualified staff who can provide immediate treatment in the case of an overdose," the statement says.

"The facilities also provide sterile equipment, information about drugs and basic health care and treatment referrals. In many cases, they also provide access to other health-care services."

Changing the law

In December, the Liberals introduced Bill C-37, which, if passed, will make it easier for the federal government to approve new supervised consumption sites across the country.

In 2015, the Conservatives introduced the Respect for Communities Act, which requires 26 criteria to be met before the federal government can begin considering a new site.

The 26 application criteria will be repealed entirely, Philpott said. Bill C-37 would instead require those wishing to set up a supervised consumption site, to meet five benchmarks:

  • Demonstration of the need for such a site to exist.
  • Demonstration of appropriate consultation of the community.
  • Presentation of evidence on whether the site will affect crime in the community.
  • Ensuring regulatory systems are in place.
  • Site proponents will need to prove appropriate resources are in place.

Philpott has been facing pressure to speed up the process to open new sites and to declare a public health emergency over the growing number of deaths related to opioid overdoses.

Lengthy approval process

The three Montreal sites were approved under the Conservatives' Respect for Communities Act.

The Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre first submitted its application for the three sites in May 2015, but it took until last month before the application had satisfied all of the 26 criteria.

The approval means there are now five legal supervised injection sites in the country, with the other two being in Vancouver. 

There are currently applications pending for another 10 sites: a mobile location in Montreal, three in Toronto, two in Vancouver, two in Surrey B.C., and one each in Victoria and Ottawa. 

Montreal mayor welcomes move

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said his city and province are governed by progressive politicians and that "sometimes" measures like supervised injection sites are required to protect the public. 

"I think it's always been necessary to have safe injection sites," said Coderre. "We have a lot of intervention. We also have to have prevention. We need a link between a health professional and the individual who is suffering from drug addiction."

Coderre said he recognizes that some people may not want the sites located in their communities, but said the alternative would be to have syringes discarded, and people dying of overdoses, in public spaces. 

"Our role is to make sure that everybody feels safe and is safe. It's not just about the people living there. It's the people who have that problem who we have to take care of," he said.

"You will never have unanimity, but I think that if you look and go through the health-care system, this is something that could work." 

With files from Ben Shingler and Sabrina Marandola