08/25/2016 12:57 EDT | Updated 08/25/2016 12:59 EDT

Liberals Should Repeal Harper Law On Safe Injection Sites: Advocates

There's demand across the country for supervised injection.

Some supervised injection site advocates are disappointed the Liberal government has not repealed the Harper government's Bill C-2, or the Respect for Communities Act.

Lawyer Adrienne Smith, who made submissions about the constitutionality of Bill C-2 at parliamentary committee hearings, told CBC's The Early Edition that people are dying of drug overdoses because of the barriers created by the bill.

A woman carries a naloxone kit and a bag from Insite, the safe injection site, while walking in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on July 27, 2016. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"I can't say I'm anything but disappointed ... We're at the height of a fentanyl crisis in British Columbia ... I'm concerned that while we wait, while we're assembling task forces and giving government the benefit of the doubt, hundreds of people could die."

Huge burden on applicants

Smith says the bill puts a number of impossible criteria on applicants, like conducting community consultations and seeking approval from multiple stakeholders.

Worst of all, Smith says, the bill will only grant exemptions to supervised injection sites in exceptional circumstances.

"Before the legislation was changed, unless there was evidence of a public safety problem, exemptions would generally be granted. Bill C-2 puts this on its head."

Cross-country demand for sites

There is clearly a demand for supervised injection sites in Canada. Cities across the country — including Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa — have been vying for their own. 

B.C.'s Interior Health Authority wants to set one up in Kamloops or Kelowna.

Vancouver is applying for five more supervised sites, and Insite is extending its hours as part of a pilot project.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott noted these groups were pushing through applications according to the existing legislation.

"There are other communities that are using the mechanisms in place to be able to apply to similar sites ... We are continuing to follow how that is evolving under the current legislation, and if there's a requirement for change in the legislation."

Insite responds

Darwin Fisher, Insite's program manager, is happy to see Philpott acknowledge harm reduction after what he says were many "unsupportive" years from the Harper government.

"The visit that Jane Philpott did to Insite was really significant in terms of our morale," said Fisher. "I'm still incredibly happy that we have a federal government that's much more open to harm reduction."

But even after Insite was granted a four-year exemption from Health Canada to continue operations in Vancouver, Fisher still believes Bill C-2 poses significant challenges for harm reduction.

"Obviously Bill C-2 was developed to make the opening of any new sites completely onerous, and indeed our most recent application for the continuance of our exemption was absolutely onerous as well," he said, adding that the facilities could benefit any community.

Waiting for approval while people die is 'unconscionable'

But Vancouver's two supervised sites remain the only legal sites in the country amidst widespread interest in opening more facilities across the country.

While Philpott emphasized the government's commitment to the harm reduction model and to supervised injection sites, Smith says these are hollow words.

"Around 370 people this summer have died in British Columbia. That's unconscionable ... Insite's a proven health care intervention that saves lives, and we should be saving them now."​

With files from The Early Edition and BC Almanac

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