Government Bill Will Impede Life-Saving Health Services, Cause More Death and Disease

Flouting the Supreme Court of Canada, today the federal government has introduced in Parliament a bill that aims to make it even more difficult for health authorities and community agencies to offer supervised drug consumption services, such as Vancouver’s Insite, to Canadians who are among those most at risk of HIV infection and fatal overdose.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Bill C-65 introduces numerous conditions that the government says must be met before the Minister of Health will issue an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to allow a supervised consumption service to operate.  Without such an exemption, people using the service risk being criminally charged for drug possession, effectively undermining the ability of health services to reach those at greatest risk.Today, the federal government tabled legislation that will make it harder for new safe injection sites to be established in Canada.  There is no way around the fact that this decision will cost lives by not allowing overdoses to be prevented and negatively impact public health by allowing the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C into communities across Canada.  Shortly following, Pivot, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and HIV/AIDS Legal Network issued a joint statement condemning this legislation.

This disastrous policy decision by the government runs counter to the intentions of the Supreme Court of Canada decision around Vancouver's Insite, which contemplated further injection sites in Canada, and will likely be constitutionally challenged up to the Supreme Court of Canada yet again, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and health care costs related to new cases of HIV and Hepatitis C and overdose death, not to mention the immeasurable hardship and trauma for people who are dependent on substances and could benefit from a site.

Bill C-65 outlines over twenty new conditions required for applicants wishing to establish a sanctioned consumption site, including letters of opinion from the provincial government and health officers, municipal government, and the police.  If one of these organizations decides not to submit a letter, the application is dead in the water.  Community support for any site seems also to be on the forefront of the federal government's mind as well.  Applicants will need to organize community forums and poll community opinion on whether people who use drugs should receive basic health care.  The applicants will need a plan to address each and every objection raised by these parties.

As we know from experience with municipalities like Abbotsford, which recently came clean around a program to harass the City's homeless population by distributing chicken manure where they congregate, stigma around drug use and people who use drugs when it relates to health care access can have serious constitutional and human rights implications.

On top of this all, even Insite will be subject to new hurdles to receive a renewal of its exemption from the government, including proof of reduction of crime rates and health benefits.

Yesterday,  the  Globe and Mail and the CBC began reporting on the intention of the government to table this legislation, titled "An Act to Amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act"  or the "Respect for Communities Act."  Today, the next step was taken by the government.

Nearly two years ago, on September 30, 2011, the long journey to the Supreme Court of Canada and the legal battle for Insite's existence came to an end. The Court ruled on the narrowest of decisions, finding that the Minister of Health had infringed the Charter Section 7 rights of the Plaintiffs when refusing to issue Insite a necessary exemption to the law that criminalized the possession of drugs while at the facility.  In its decision, the SCC - perhaps aware that cities such as Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Victoria had need for services reducing the harms to injection drug users - contemplated new injection sites being approved in Canada.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court said the Health Minister has discretion in deciding whether to approve any particular request for an exemption to run a supervised consumption service, but that discretion must be exercised in a way that respects the Charter. The Court set out five factors and said the Minister must consider any evidence there is about those factors in making a decision. This includes any evidence about community support or opposition to the proposed health service.

However, the Court did not say that these are preconditions that must all be satisfied.  Yet the government’s bill would make people’s access to supervised consumption services dependent on whether police or other members of the community feel they are warranted.  People who use drugs are entitled to needed health care services just like all other Canadians. It is unethical, unconstitutional and damaging to both public health and the public purse to block access to supervised consumption services which save lives and prevent the spread of infections.


UPDATE:  No sooner is this blog up then I get wind of an email sent out by the Conservative Party.  This really shows how the "community concern" issue is an indicator that the government is acting in bad faith.  No sooner does the Health Minister table a bill requiring applicants to gather statements on file from community groups, safety ministers, municipal government, police, health professionals,than the Conservative Party begins to foment community opposition to injection sites.

It’s hard to imagine how anybody could claim with a straight face that there is any reasonable expectation of good faith on the part of the Minister when it comes to exercising that discretion if at the same time the government is actively trying to create community opposition to any application from any location in the country.