OTTAWA — The federal government is adopting a public-health approach to its drug control strategy, Health Minister Jane Philpott said Monday as she unveiled proposed new measures that would open the door to more supervised injection sites in Canada.
Newly tabled legislation would, if passed, eliminate 26 strict requirements for new "consumption" sites put in place by the previous Conservative government, all within parameters set out by the Supreme Court, Philpott said.
"We need to take swift action on the opioid crisis to save lives," she told a news conference in the foyer of the House of Commons, describing the current fentanyl crisis as national in scope.
"We must confront the fact there will be no quick reversal of the current situation."
Currently, applicants for new injection sites must provide medical and scientific evidence of benefit, along with stakeholder letters from provincial health ministers, local police and regional health officials — stringent criteria that advocates say made it all but impossible to establish new sites.
A number of applications for sites are currently under review, and the government intends to provide updates to make it clear in those cases what needs to be done to win approval, Philpott said.
"The circumstances of every community will be different," she said. "That's why it's important that communities work together in their locations to be able to address their unique circumstances."
In places like downtown Vancouver, which is on the front line of the fentanyl problem, people are dying every day, she added.
"The evidence is very clear that when they are well established and well maintained in communities that want and need the, supervised consumption sites save lives and do not have a negative impact on crime rates in the community," she said.
"We will encourage everyone to have that public health approach, to recognize this is a health crisis and we need to provide the appropriate resources."
There are currently two drug injection sites in Canada — both in Vancouver.
The new legislation would, if passed, lift a restriction that prevents border guards from inspecting packages that are under 30 grams in weight — even if they have reason to believe the packages contain illegal drugs.
It would also place new restrictions on the import of pill presses and encapsulators, two machines commonly used in the production of illicit drugs.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin, who represents the riding of Victoria, said he's pleased to see the new changes — but disappointed it has taken more than a year since the Liberals took power for them to come to the fore.
"Listen, I had — in one week — five people in the city of Victoria die," Rankin said.
"This government taking these steps now is appreciated ... but it is hardly adequate and in the time it is going to take to debate these changes ... dozens of people are going to die."
In British Columbia alone, officials say there have been 622 drug overdose deaths between January and October, about 60 per cent of them involve fentanyl.
"It's very clear that British Columbia is facing extraordinary circumstances," Philpott said.
Health officials and political leaders have sounded the alarm about a dramatic spike in opioid deaths across Canada. The issue was the focus of a national summit held in Ottawa last month that brought together experts from across the country.
Last month, the federal government also announced plans to more closely regulate six chemicals that are principal ingredients in the making of fentanyl. The RCMP are also working with China to stanch the flow of fentanyl from across the Pacific Ocean.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and Chen Zhimin, the vice-minister of China's public security ministry, agreed to boost efforts to disrupt the flow of the drug and other opioids.
Fentanyl and other opioids pose a grave threat to community safety in Canada, Paulson said at the time.
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press