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Montreal gets federal approval for two supervised injection sites

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, left, speaks as British Columbia Health Minister Terry Lake listens during a news conference before meeting with first responders at a fire hall in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday November 10, 2016.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

After a long wait, two supervised injection sites will open in Montreal in a matter of weeks, Quebec's public health minister announced Friday.

Lucie Charlebois says she received word that two sites were given the necessary federal exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — the final step to allow them to open their doors.

The long-awaited announcement comes as two international events on addiction are being held in the city.

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Supervised injection sites provide a safe space for addicts and provide them with the necessary equipment — sterile syringes, gauze pads and the like — for safe injections.

The users themselves bring their drugs, the sites pride themselves on being anonymous and confidential, and the users are accompanied on site by nurses and community and psycho-social workers.

While such sites are met with a "not in my backyard" attitude, Charlebois said that reluctance has faded over time.

"There is no unanimity, but there is a great social consensus in Montreal," she said.

The Montreal sites are modelled after Vancouver-based Insite, which was the first city in North America to have a legal, supervised injection site beginning in 2003.

While critics say the sites encourage drug use, experience has shown they reduce the number of overdose deaths and transmission of hepatitis C and HIV.

They also allow stakeholders to make contact with addicts and direct them treatment programs.

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In the Montreal-area, there are approximately 70 overdose deaths each year, of which between 15 and 20 involve injections.

Montreal's first two sites will be managed by established community organizations in downtown and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve districts. Two others are planned, including a mobile unit.

The province is devoting a budget of $12 million over three years for the effort.

Also Friday, Health Minister Jane Philpott said she has accepted some of the changes proposed by the Senate to Bill C-37, which aims to facilitate the opening of supervised injection sites, made more difficult under the previous Harper government.

But Philpott said she rejected the idea of setting up citizen committees for supervised injection sites.

Philpott contends such a requirement would stigmatize supervised injection sites and the people who use them, noting no other health service requires this type of citizen committee.

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She approved one amendment calling for a minimum 45 day consultation before the opening of such sites.

The other amendment was to oblige the facilities to offer addicts a therapeutic product like methadone instead of the illegally purchased drug they're using.

Philpott indicated that not all sites are equipped to provide this type of treatment and left it to the discretion of each centre, removing the Senate's mandatory suggestion.

The House of Commons is currently studying the amendments proposed by the Senate.

Philpott expects the bill will be passed next week.

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