It's about to get easier to set up supervised drug injection sites in Canada

In the midst of an opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives, the federal government is going to make it easier to set up supervised drug injection sites.

Pressure on federal government as 'public health crisis' grows

A drug user prepares to inject heroin at Insite in Vancouver, the first supervised injection site in North America. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

As the number of Canadians dying from opioid overdoses continues to grow, the federal government is preparing to make it easier to open supervised drug injection sites.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott is set to bring forward on Monday proposed legislation to make changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

For months, Philpott has been facing pressure to speed up the process to open new sites, where addicts use intravenous drugs in a safe and medically supervised environment. B.C. in particular has been vocal. The province has seen hundreds die from drug overdoses this year alone, and provincial officials have labelled the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

In September, Philpott announced her office was reviewing the rules around supervised injection sites to "get it right."

"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 at the time.

Last month, Health Canada called the growing number of overdoses and deaths a "public health crisis" and at the national opioid summit in Ottawa re-committed to making those changes. The department also said it would support new applicants for safe injection sites and keep the public up to date on applications.

​Demand for more sites

B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, said earlier this year that the Respect for Communities Act, passed by the Harper government in 2015, "makes it very, very difficult, labour-intensive and expensive" to get the necessary exemption to open a new site.

He said both he and provincial Health Minister Terry Lake had written to Philpott, asking her to streamline the process.

Right now, Insite and the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver are the only supervised injection sites approved in Canada. On Thursday, bypassing federal red tape, Lake announced the opening of two "overdose prevention sites" in Vancouver, and more set to open in Surrey and Victoria in the coming weeks. Many so-called pop-up sites have also appeared, without approval, in response to the crisis. 

Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton are among the jurisdictions preparing applications or awaiting federal approval to open their own sites. There are ongoing discussions in many more communities. In B.C., health officials in Surrey and Victoria have identified additional sites for which they will seek federal approval.

In Ottawa, the city's board of health has voted to support community health centres that bring forward safe injection site proposals, although the mayor and police chief remain opposed to the sites.