The federal government is allowing cities and harm-reduction organizations to apply directly to Health Canada to help get funding for supervised consumption sites amid the opioid crisis that’s killing Canadians in record numbers.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said that allowing municipalities and non-profits to apply directly to Ottawa for an exemption to open overdose prevention sites will help remove barriers in the fight against the public health crisis.
“We want to make sure that there are no barriers in place if these services are needed in communities across the country because we know they save lives,” said press secretary Thierry Bélair. “We have approved over 25 supervised consumption sites and provided additional funding to provinces hardest hit by the crisis. We will continue to take action to turn the tide on this crisis.”
The decision follows an announcement from Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government in October that it would put a cap of 21 supervised consumption sites in the province. The sites will also now be called “consumption and treatment services (CTS)” and those looking to operate existing sites would have to re-apply to the province to stay open and receive funding.
A spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott did not comment on the federal changes, but said in a general statement that the new CTS model will “focus on connecting people who use drugs to primary care, treatment and rehabilitation, and other health and social services.”
“Our government’s overriding priority is to ensure that all efforts to combat opioid addiction are designed to introduce people into rehabilitation and that those struggling with addiction get the help they need,” Hayley Chazan said in a statement. “This is a critical first step as we move forward in developing a comprehensive and connected mental health and addictions strategy.”
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Health experts have widely criticized the Ontario government for its unnecessary review of supervised consumption sites and forcing existing sites to go through a separate application process.
Richard Elliott, a human rights advocate with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, was cautiously optimistic by Ottawa’s announcement but said it doesn’t address the need for more funding for these sites.
“If a municipality is applying, then presumably they are doing that to put some funding into the service which is great,” Elliott said. “If it’s a not-for-profit, then they have to find that funding.”
Elliott said there are a number of other measures the Trudeau government could be taking to deal with the crisis including decriminalizing personal drug use, and class exemptions for staff at consumption sites.
“Anything from Ottawa that makes it simpler and easier to get the necessary exemption in place so they can offer without risk of criminal prosecution is a good thing,” he said. “But it’s hard to know unless we see the specific details of what Ottawa is putting forward.”
Last year, the federal government announced changes to the Controlled Drug and Substances Act that would streamline the process and make it easier to set up safe consumption sites, allow the health minister to quickly restrict certain substances, and allow Canada Border Services Agency officers to open packages that weigh 30 grams or less.
New data released this week from the Public Health Agency of Canada showed that more than 2,000 people have died of an opioid-related overdose in the first half of 2017, and that smaller communities have been hit hardest by the crisis.
Nearly all deaths were accidental with 75 per cent being attributed to lethal fentanyl – an opioid believed to be 50 times more powerful than heroin.
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