Manitoba bill would ‘eliminate’ OD-prevention RV: Sunshine House
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The head of the organization that runs Manitoba’s only overdose prevention site said he feels “sideswiped” by proposed legislation to regulate addictions services.
If passed, the bill would halt the operation of OD-prevention sites such as the mobile one run by Sunshine House, said executive director Levi Foy.
“We’re sideswiped, for sure, on it,” Foy said. “It’s dumbfounding in a lot of ways — that they would introduce a bill that would have such an impact on the services that we’re providing without actually having a single conversation with us about our needs.”
Bill 33 (the Addiction Services Act) was introduced Tuesday in the Manitoba legislature by Janice Morley-Lecomte, the minister for mental health and community wellness.
The legislation would require groups that provide addiction services to apply for a provincial licence and meet certain standards of care and minimum levels of medical supervision. Violators could face fines of up to $10,000 for individuals and $50,000 for corporations — per day.
Foy said Sunshine House is not opposed to additional certification and he would apply for a licence, if necessary. However, he doesn’t think the requirement is needed, and believes it would prevent Sunshine House’s low-barrier mobile overdose prevention site — an RV that travels around the city — from operating.
“This bill looks entirely like its meant to eliminate overdose prevention sites,” he said.
The province insisted it consulted “extensively” with “provincially funded organizations” on regulation standards.
“The new legislation is intended to reduce risks to the community and ensure any sites established are appropriately situated within a continuum of addictions care services, along with efforts to promote recovery,” said a spokesperson for the department of mental health. “Our focus remains on prevention, early intervention, treatment and long-term recovery for Manitobans when they ask for help.”
But that’s not the point of an overdose prevention site, Foy said.
The Sunshine House RV offers people a place to use their drugs, knowing that they will be revived and cared for if they overdose. Some people get connected with treatment and additional supports, but the goal is helping people where they’re at, not steering them into recovery, he said.
Sunshine House statistics show there were more than 4,500 visits to the site between November 2022, when it launched, and the end of February, 2023. Thousands of clean needles were handed out. People used drugs at the site close to 900 times. There were approximately nine overdoses, Foy said.
Each time, the person was revived. All required at least four administrations of naloxone. The most recent required nine. While paramedics were called in each case, no one needed to go to the hospital, Foy said.
He said the demand witnessed by Sunshine House, and the severity of Winnipeg’s toxic drug supply, underscore the dire need for the RV service and others like it.
A total of 377 people died of drug overdoses in Manitoba between January and November 2022. That’s nearly double the number of people who died in 2019 — 199.
Meanwhile, Foy said the RV service’s low-barrier nature is what makes it effective. The bill would take that away, he said.
The province said it wants groups to “register clients with health cards, track outcomes, maintain regulated health-care professionals on site or refer clients to treatment services.”
“Our focus is not tracking outcomes. Our focus is saving lives,” Foy said.
Many of the RV’s clients don’t have health cards, nor do all of them use their real names. Some don’t until they’ve established trusting relationships with staff, he said.
Others wouldn’t want to be tracked by the traditional health-care system, where they may have experienced racism or felt stigmatized in the past, he said.
And staff? They’re peers, people with lived experience using drugs, who make people using the service feel understood and safe, he said. They can do first-aid but if someone needs, say, complicated wound care, they’re referred elsewhere.
The RV operates under a temporary Health Canada exemption that is granted in cases where there’s an emergency need to respond to a toxic drug crisis. Sunshine House receives funding from Health Canada.
The province has raised concerns about the federal exemption and says it wants a say over the process.
Foy said the existing process works well because it allows Sunshine House to determine which areas of the city would benefit from more support, or even a bricks-and-mortar supervised consumption site. Without data gathered from test runs, it could be hard to know where and how to get an effective supervised consumption site off the ground, if the province even approved it, he said.
The province said the new legislation would apply to publicly and privately funded services, including an estimated 26 existing bed-based treatment service providers, 11 withdrawal-management service providers and one “supervised consumption service provider.”
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.