Politics

Government agrees to make changes to bill on supervised drug-injection sites

The federal health minister will accept some Senate amendments to her key piece of legislation to deal with the opioid crisis.

Minister gives final approval to 2 sites in Montreal, as she appeals to Parliament to pass her bill

Health Minister Jane Philpott will accept some of the Senate's amendments to the government's bill to ease the approval of supervised drug consumption sites. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has accepted some of the Senate's changes to a key piece of legislation to deal with the opioid crisis.

The Senate passed Bill C-37 with three amendments a week ago, sending it back to the House of Commons.

Today, the Liberal government signalled it will accept the Senate's tweak to the legislation that calls for a minimum of 45 days for the public to comment on new supervised drug consumption sites.

Philpott noted this public comment period is on top of the consultations already done by the community applying for a site, and would only happen in cases where the federal minister felt it was necessary.

Philpott is rejecting an amendment that would give her the option to set up a citizen advisory committee to write annual reports on public concerns about the presence of a site in the community.

'Unacceptable' burden

"We really felt that that was unacceptable. It would add a significant burden to these sites, and it particularly was felt by many stakeholders to be stigmatizing because we don't put this burden on any other kind of health facility," Philpott said

Finally, Philpott is suggesting an amendment to the most controversial change from the Senate, which would require doctors at these sites to offer substitute pharmaceuticals to drug users as an alternative to using more dangerous street drugs and to discourage the sale of illicit drugs.

Instead, the health minister is suggesting the Senate's wording be amended to replace the words "shall offer" with the words "may offer." 

Conservative Senator Vern White introduced the original amendment, and he doesn't like the minister's change.

"I am concerned that removing the requirement of supervised consumption sites to offer a pharmaceutical replacement will feed organized crime and jeopardize the lives of addicts," he wrote in a statement to CBC News.

'It's dangerous'

Conservative Colin Carrie made a similar argument in the House of Commons.

"They come in with a vial of poison basically, something that was made up in a drug dealer's basement, and it's not safe, it's dangerous. And this amendment would allow addicts to be offered a pharmaceutical-grade option instead of forcing them to use this dangerous drug," Carrie said.

Philpott says she's met with Senator White many times to discuss his concerns.

"I'm absolutely supportive what I understand to be his primary motivation around this, and we are fully supportive of making sure people have access to a whole range of treatment," Philpott said.

"But we felt that in this case, it was not appropriate to force this provision of a particular type of treatment.... Sometimes people come to supervised consumption sites and they're ready for additional treatment and sometimes they're not," she said.

2 new sites

On the same day she was urging MPs and senators to pass this legislation quickly, Philpott also gave final approval to two new supervised consumption sites in Montreal.

When asked why her bill is needed if these sites could be approved under the old rules, Philpott said "these applications have been in process for 18 months.

"It's required a lot of work on the part of the communities that are already addressing a significant public-health crisis, to fill in the applications under the previous legislation, which had 26 different criteria that had to be met. And it requires a tremendous amount of administrative burden on the part of the agencies that are trying to do this."

The minister's own changes now must be passed by the House of Commons before they are sent back to the Senate, which could agree to the amended bill or dig in its heels. The bill must pass with the same wording in both chambers before it can become law.

Amendments will delay law

No matter what happens next, the amendments will delay passage of a bill that is a key part of the Liberal government's response to the opioid crisis, which kills people in Canada every week.

The Liberals introduced the new rules around supervised drug injection sites late last year to make it easier for communities to open them. Harm-reduction advocates argued the 26 criteria brought in under the previous Conservative government were too onerous.

Beyond supervised drug injection sites, the legislation also contains sections meant to deal with other aspects of the opioid epidemic.

For instance, C-37 contains measures to make it more difficult to import pill presses in the hopes of reducing the amount of fentanyl manufactured illegally and sold on the streets.

'Consider the human toll'

It would also give the Canada Border Services Agency the power to open letter mail if an officer has reasonable grounds to suspect it contains something illegal.

This is why the Canadian Medical Association is urging Parliament to put aside partisan interests and pass the bill soon.

"The longer that goes on the more people, unfortunately, will die," Dr. Jeff Blackmer told CBC News.

"We really need to consider the human toll of all this. This isn't some abstract thing that's happening overseas. This is happening on the streets and the alleyways of Canada every single day and the doctors of Canada are seeing the impact," he said.

CMA vice-president Jeff Blackmer on the role of safe injection sites in the opioid crisis. 4:38

Philpott is still hopeful the bill can receive Royal Assent in a matter of days.

"This bill is coming up in the context of the biggest public-health emergency that we've seen in decades in this country. We're in a context of British Columbia seeing an average of four overdose deaths every single day. That's in one province alone," Philpott said.

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