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B.C. safe-injection site applies to Health Canada for exemption to drug laws

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VANCOUVER - After running a safe-injection site for 12 years without an exemption to drug laws, the operators of a Vancouver health centre are asking the federal government to let them continue providing the harm-reduction service legally.

The Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation and Vancouver Coastal Health authority announced Thursday they have applied to Health Canada for the exemption.

The foundation operates the Dr. Peter Centre, which provides services to people with HIV and AIDS, including a supervised injection site and a needle exchange. Its services are funded, in large part, by the health authority.

A separate safe-injection site, Insite, also operates in the city, but it, unlike the Dr. Peter Centre, has an exemption.

"All we're doing when we offer harm reduction services is preventing people from dying of a drug overdose," said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer of Vancouver Coastal Health.

"That's what harm reduction does. It keeps alive people who are addicted, people who are somebody's father, or mother or brother or sister, son or daughter, so that hopefully they can eventually successfully be treated."

In fact, Insite previously reported more than 1,400 overdoses between 2004 and 2010, but health-care staff intervened, and there hasn't yet been an overdose death.

Health Canada confirmed in an email Thursday t has received the application from the foundation and will take the time needed for a thorough review.

"The government has also introduced new legislation that would give local law enforcement, municipal leaders, and local residents a voice before a permit is granted for a supervised drug consumption site," the statement added.

Vancouver Coastal Health states in a news release the provincial government, City of Vancouver and several community groups have already endorsed the services offered at the centre.

According to the health authority, the Dr. Peter Centre integrated supervised-injection services into its nursing practice 12 years ago because there were two, non-fatal overdoses at the facility, and clients were hiding their drug use from staff.

Daly said the centre applied for an exemption in 2003 and believed one was granted, but learned a few years later that the paperwork wasn't fully processed.

When the Conservative government attempted to end Insite's exemption in 2008, the subsequent court case "put on hold" applications by groups, like the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, that were seeking exemptions, said Daly.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the federal government in 2011 and unanimously decided to uphold Insite's exemption under the controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

After that, said Daly, the foundation decided to apply for an exemption, and the health authority has been helping it with the application.

She said the health authority has helped Insite with its applications and has the experience the foundation needs.

"They've never hidden the fact that they've been offering these services," added Daly.

Still, the application process is about to get even harder, said Daly, because of a new bill introduced by the Conservative government.

If passed, the law would require those who want to run new clinics to meet two dozen specific criteria before they can even apply for an exemption. Among other things, they would have to canvass community opinion and gain the support of provincial and municipal authorities.

The final decision would rest with the health minister.

"This is going to make it even harder, which is unfortunate because this is a service that has shown to be of tremendous benefit, and we hope it can be offered elsewhere," said Daly, adding only one other group, which is based in Montreal, has indicated it will apply for an exemption.

She said if the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation is successful, two, Vancouver-based safe injection sites will have exemptions to drug laws, the other being Insite.

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