Bill C-2 amounts to a death sentence law for drug users

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

This week the Harper government, and the largely Conservative-appointed Senate, will effectively drive a nail into the coffins of thousands of Canadians living with addiction by passing legislation that will block the establishment of supervised injection facilities like Vancouver’s Insite.

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Bill C-2, the ill-named Respect for Communities Act, which is likely to pass third reading in the Senate imminently, changes section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, Canada’s blanket prohibition on drugs. It establishes 26 new requirements applicants must meet before the feds will even consider an approval to operate a supervised injection facility. These requirements are unwarranted and will be, in many cases, impossible to satisfy.

Vancouver’s supervised injection facility operates legally because users and staff are exempted under section 56 from criminal liability for possession and trafficking in drugs. It’s at Insite where drug users are able to inject the drugs to which they are addicted safely, under the supervision of a nurse who can intervene if something goes wrong. There are nearly a 100 similar sites in dozens of countries around the world. There is only one in Canada.

The passing of Bill C-2 is bad news for Insite, but even worse news for the thousands of people struggling with addiction across our country in communities without similar facilities, but in desperate need of them.

You may recall the Supreme Court of Canada seemed to settle this issue after the Conservative government’s efforts to shut Insite’s doors. The Court’s landmark 2011 decision upheld the constitutional rights of drug users to access Insite’s life-saving health services. It also said that in the absence of a demonstrable risk to public safety, section 56 exemptions should be granted. Unsurprisingly, Bill C-2 takes the opposite position, mandating that exemptions will occur only in “exceptional circumstances.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision that Insite was legally a hospital, Health Minister Rona Ambrose has continued to lobby against the establishment of similar safe-injection sites based on unfounded fear-mongering. She told a Senate committee that future “injection houses” could be plunked down in every small community without any consultation, unless she acted quickly to protect us all from “addicts.” The reality is that drug users — members of our families and our communities — are already injecting unsafely in the alleyways of the nation and without access to specialized health care, they will continue to die there.

In the summer of 2014, there were 83 severe overdoses investigated by the Agence de la santé et des services sociaux de Montréal, 25 of them fatal. A fentanyl epidemic is currently plaguing Calgary and Alberta’s Kainai Nation (Blood) reserve west of Lethbridge. Fentanyl is an opiate drug regularly passed off as heroin by street dealers but dangerously more potent. In other communities across the country, thousands of people have died by overdose and, under this new legislation, countless others will die, too.

It doesn’t have to be this way. On Thanksgiving weekend last year, 30 people suffered accidental fentanyl overdoses at Insite. None of them died. In contrast, the lethal concoction took five lives elsewhere in the city. Between 2004 and 2010 there were 1,418 overdoses at Insite, but not a single death. Many of these overdoses could have been fatal had they occurred outside the facility.

The problem of fatal drug overdoses in Canada is a preventable epidemic. Supervised injection saves lives. The science and the economic benefit have been well established in credible peer-reviewed journals for more than a decade. When I travelled to Ottawa last November, I told a House of Commons committee that the bill was unconstitutional. It would not pass Charter scrutiny and would attract a pointless and expensive legal challenge.

But it has long been the custom of this government to make decisions based on ideology rather than evidence. The Harper government does not value the lives of people who use drugs. Rather than embracing the life-saving promise of a proven intervention, it seems Ottawa will instead violate the constitutional rights of drug users and compound the grave dangers they face.