VANCOUVER — Drug users at supervised consumption sites is Surrey, B.C., have been allowed to use substances orally and nasally, not just by injection, in the first such exemption approved by Health Canada.
The two sites, SafePoint and the Quibble Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre, opened separately earlier this month but permitted users to only inject drugs under medical supervision.
Fraser Health submitted applications for the facilities asking that users also be allowed to snort or ingest drugs but Health Canada did not grant the request when it allowed the sites to open.
The approval announced Tuesday means drug users are exempt from laws involving possession and trafficking of controlled substances even if they consume their own substances by means other than shooting up.
Two other supervised consumption sites that have existed in Vancouver for years, along with those that have recently been allowed to open in the city and elsewhere in Canada, still only allow drug use by injection.
Dr. Victoria Lee, chief medical health officer for Fraser Health, said the exemption allowing people to take various drugs through different means will expire in one year before another application must be submitted.
She said while the main concern is saving lives, supervised consumption sites are also a gateway to treat opioid addiction.
“We want to make sure that our services are providing as big a reach as possible,” she said. “We also wanted to ensure that others in the country have a better and more streamlined process for them to get approval for intra-nasal and oral substances.
“We heard from colleagues from around the country that they didn’t even know that this was an option,” Lee said of the health authority’s original application requesting approval for three modes of drug consumption.
About 1,000 people have used SafePoint since it opened on June 8, and 19 of them have overdosed, requiring staff to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, Lee said.
Substances used have included cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, amphetamines, methamphetamine and sometimes ecstasy, she said.
Many of the street drugs are contaminated with the potentially deadly painkiller fentanyl, which has been implicated in thousands of overdose deaths across Canada.
“These substances are not being made in pristine labs, they’re being made in clandestine labs, more like bathtubs, in somebody’s house,” Lee said.
Fraser Health’s application to Health Canada did not request an exemption for smoking crack because that would have created an occupational hazard for workers, Lee said.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s deputy provincial health officer, said users of supervised consumption sites primarily inject drugs such as heroin.
She said provincial officials are in discussions with Health Canada to allow British Columbia, where over 900 people fatally overdosed last year, to approve its own supervised consumption sites.
“We would like to see them give the province an exemption to monitor and to open supervised consumption sites according to a provincial program, like we do for everything else in health care, essentially. Some of the regulations are set federally but we manage the programs.”
Henry noted B.C. has already opened nearly two dozen overdose prevention sites in an effort to curb deaths, showing it can develop needed services amid a public health emergency that was declared in April 2016.
The sites were opened through a ministerial order and are run by community peers including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, though the facilities don’t connect people to other services or treatment.
“It’s us trying to protect people while we’re dealing with this very toxic drug supply right now, where people were using alone and dying,” Henry said.
— Follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press
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