Bill 33 snares harm reduction in red tape
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Sunshine House has been operating the Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS) in Winnipeg since Oct. 29, 2022. Based out of a recreational vehicle, we operate six days a week for at least six hours per day.
It is an Indigenous-led space, staffed by a dedicated team composed entirely of Black and Indigenous people with lived and living experience of using drugs. We’ve had more than 4,600 visits, handed out more than 10,000 drug-related harm-reduction supplies, and shared coffees, snacks and chats with thousands of Winnipeggers.
And yes, on more than 800 occasions, individuals have used substances on the site. Fewer than 10 of those required immediate overdose intervention. None of those people died or required hospitalization.
This is harm reduction. Harm reduction recognizes that human beings engage in all types of risky activities and sometimes those risks require collaboration and support for survival. Using drugs carries risk. So does driving a car, which is why we wear seatbelts, put our kids in child seats and switch over to snow tires in the winter.
As harm-reduction practitioners, our goal is to value every person in the community on their own terms. We recognize every person is on their own journey. Our work focuses on providing people with the information, resources and support they need to get through the day alive.
In the eight months since we announced plans for the MOPS, the Manitoba government and its ministers have publicly expressed many opinions on the topic of supervised drug consumption. Most recently, this included an op-ed in this paper from the minister of mental health and community wellness, Janice Morley-Lecomte.
This is the standard pattern. The government speaks in the media; they never speak with us. We have not had a single phone call, meeting, email or in-person site visit from Morley-Lecomte, her predecessor, or anyone else in her department or government.
The minister wants the public to think MOPS is a “fly-by-night” operation. This is not the case. Its development began in 2018 with the publication of our Safer Consumption Spaces: Winnipeg Consultation and Needs Report.
We consulted with community members, health-care stakeholders and most importantly, people who would use our services. We undertook the rigorous application process for an Urgent Public Health Need Site exemption from Health Canada. The creation of this program was done with extreme care and intentionality.
Overdose prevention sites (OPS) are different from supervised consumption sites (SCS). OPS in Canada are by definition not as comprehensive as SCS. They act as an immediate response to community needs, acting quickly in a community-based way.
Think of an OPS as a food truck and an SCS as a sit-down restaurant. Our OPS doesn’t have an SCS’s full menu of services, but it still meets essential needs people have.
The minister is correct that “comprehensive services are needed.” Unfortunately, this government views anyone who uses drugs as requiring one kind of help only. Most things in life are complex and nuanced. It’s common sense that drug use is, too.
Instead of engaging with those of us working every day on the ground to keep people from dying of overdose, the government introduced Bill 33. The bill could potentially disqualify our existing staff from working at the site because they are not licensed health-care practitioners. It gives sweeping powers to a provincially appointed director and would require us to completely deviate from the practices we have developed in collaboration with those who use the space. It brings the threat of closure on a bureaucratic whim.
Morley-Lecomte and Premier Heather Stefanson continue to paint people who use drugs and the provision of person-centred services as inherently unsafe.
This is not the reality. There has not been a single death at a supervised consumption site or overdose prevention site in North America since the first one opened in 2003. MOPS has already met the requirements and regulations laid out by Health Canada. The harm-reduction strategies we use are supported by decades of evidence.
The number of degrees separating every Manitoban from overdose death is continually shrinking. If you haven’t lost a loved one, it’s likely someone you know has. This bill prevents all of us from creating services for our communities that save lives, reduce strains on emergency services and instil safety.
Morley-Lecomte wrote in her opinion piece: “It’s about helping people. It always has been.” We mourn the hundreds of Manitobans who have already died waiting for the kind of help Morley-Lecomte and this government have repeatedly denied. It’s in their memory, and the interests of preventing similar harm to more people, that we ask this government to join us in a new direction — to rescind Bill 33 and adopt approaches that will actually save lives.
Levi Foy is the executive director of Sunshine House, Inc.