PCs tone down opposition to safe consumption sites Government introduces proposed law to license drug treatment
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THE Manitoba government has signalled it is open to the possibility of supporting supervised drug-consumption sites — after years of rejecting them — but only if they are heavily regulated.
Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte introduced the Addictions Services Act in the legislature Tuesday. It sets out regulatory oversight of drug treatment sites and safe consumption sites.
The move came on the heels of an op-ed column in Tuesday’s Free Press, in which Morley-Lecomte hinted the government had softened its opposition on safe consumption sites.
However, critics say the proposed law would add barriers to those who use the current network of makeshift services.
In an opinion piece in Tuesday’s Free Press, Morley-Lecomte wrote that “forthcoming measures could open a window” to supervised consumption sites.
The measures, as outlined in Bill 33 would require those seeking to operate a site to apply for both a federal exemption from Health Canada — an existing requirement — and a licence from the provincial government.
Organizations that seek a provincial licence would have to comply with terms such as: completing community engagement, ensuring staff take training, having insurance, keeping records on incident-reporting, providing records to the province on request and allowing the province to have a say in the management and operation.
Licence-seekers must also outline “a clear pathway to treatment and recovery services” in their application. An application fee may be required. Violators would be subject to a $10,000 fine for individuals and $50,000 for corporations.
Uzoma Asagwara, the NDP health critic, told reporters the bill will deter groups from “finding creative solutions” to the addictions crisis and will put up barriers to those that currently provide care.
“The last thing (front-line community organizations) need are more barriers, more hoops to jump through,” Asagwara said.
The province could support supervised consumption sites now but instead “doubles down” on policies based on “personal opinions,” Asagwara said.
At an afternoon news conference, Morley-Lecomte said the bill would create standards for public and private addiction services. She raised concerns about the federal government having control over the approvals process.
“The federal government is moving into this area by allowing facilities to operate,” she said. “We need to act to ensure Manitobans can be confident in the quality and safety of services.”
“The last thing (front-line community organizations) need are more barriers, more hoops to jump through.”–Uzoma Asagwara, NDP health critic
Asked if the province would support a supervised consumption site if an applicant met its criteria, she would only say interested groups can apply.
If passed, the measures would take effect in January 2025. Organizations that already provide addictions services would have six months to get a licence.
Groups like Sunshine House, which has operated a mobile overdose prevention visited by users more than 4,500 times since it started in November, would need to apply for a licence or be shut down, Morley-Lecomte said.
Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberals, supports the bill. He said it will regulate the sector and prevent potential bad actors from profiting off those seeking help.
“There are no standards (and) there is no licensing at all right now in Manitoba,” Lamont said. “Anyone can set up and say they’re a detox centre.”Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberals, supports the bill. He said it will regulate the sector and prevent potential bad actors from profiting off those seeking help.
Thomas Linner, provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, said the bill is a “continuation” of the Tory government’s opposition to supervised consumption, “not a reversal.”
“Despite the hopes of many following the minister’s recent op-ed, this is not ‘signalling an openness’ to supervised consumption and harm reduction services,” he said. “It is rather a cynical attempt to kick the can down the road, and past the next election, by suggesting that the issue is a regulatory matter.”
At a news conference in Portage la Prairie earlier in the day, Morley-Lecomte said she personally has “concerns” about supervised drug use sites.
“The sites are not always the safest and are operating in isolation,” she said.
Until now, the Stefanson government has said the province is focused on a “recovery-oriented system of care” and its decision to reject supervised consumption sites is based on evidence.
Critics have slammed the province for this approach, saying recovery and harm reduction go hand in hand.
Manitoba is the only province west of the Atlantic region without any of the facilities, which advocates argue save lives. Users take drugs in a supervised space where they can be revived if they overdose.
Meantime, days after the province said it would not share preliminary data about overdose deaths — figures the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner used to made public but no longer does — the province reversed course.
The numbers, broken down by deaths each month in 2022, are now available on the province’s website.
At least 377 people died between January and November 2022, with the highest number, 43, in October. December data is not yet available. In 2021, 424 Manitobans died from overdoses, compared to 371 in 2020 and 199 in 2019.
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.