A piece of legislation that makes it easier to open supervised injection sites has become law, replacing Harper-era regulations that effectively stalled the harm-reduction service as overdose deaths climbed.
Under Bill C-37, which received royal assent on Thursday, agencies wanting to open a supervised-injection site must meet five streamlined conditions, down from 26 under the previous Respect for Communities Act.
The Liberal government tabled the bill in December. It received final approval on Wednesday, with minor amendments.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott called the passing of the bill "very good news."
"As you well know, we're facing an overdose epidemic in this country of unprecedented proportions," she told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday.
"[The legislation] will have a significant impact in terms of our ability to offer harm-reduction services, including, of course, facilitating the ability for communities that want and need supervised consumption sites to be able to establish those facilities."
Only two new sites – both in Montreal – have been approved under the previous legislation, whose onerous process critics decried as a deliberate effort to impede supervised consumption service. The Harper government had introduced it in 2015 after fighting Insite, Vancouver's public supervised-injection site, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and losing. (The Montreal sites are not yet open.)
In B.C., which has been hardest hit by the overdose crisis, a record 931 people died in 2016 alone. Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall said energy and money that could have gone into expanding supervised consumption service instead went into fighting to keep Insite open.
"I think had the Respect for Communities Act not been in place, we might well have seen supervised consumption sites in Victoria, as well as possibly one or two more in Vancouver," he said Thursday.
"[The previous legislation] clearly acted as a disincentive for people to move forward," Dr. Kendall said.
Insite receives roughly 700 visits a day, including around 400 to the injection room. In 14 years of operation, it has never recorded a fatal overdose. Vancouver Coastal Health officials are hopeful the passing of Bill C-37 will mean the two applications it submitted in October will be approved soon.
The City of Vancouver estimates that at least 154 people have died so far this year.
Under the new legislation, agencies that want to open a supervised-injection site must meet five factors outlined in the 2011 Supreme Court decision regarding Insite. They must show: proof of need; community consultations; evidence about the site's effect on crime; that there is an administrative structure in place; and that there are adequate resources to maintain the site.
Only one support letter of support from the provincial or territorial minister responsible for the delivery of supervised-consumption services is now required. Previously, a prospective operator had to submit five support letters, from the minister, police, local health professionals and others. Background checks are required now only for the people in charge, not for all staff members, as per the old rules.
One proposed amendment that staff "shall offer" alternative pharmaceutical therapies before a client can use illicit drugs was changed to "may offer." Another amendment that the minister be able to establish citizen advisory committees for approved sites was deleted. The public consultation period was changed from a maximum of 90 days to a minimum of 45.
The legislation also prohibits the unregistered importation of pill presses and allows border officials to screen packages weighing 30 grams or less if there are reasonable grounds.
There are currently 19 outstanding applications for supervised-injection sites across Canada, with some nearing the final stages.