Tories’ proposed licensing labyrinth a sign priority is changing lives, not necessarily saving them Province seems intent on boarding up harm-reduction window before opening it
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This week, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government surprised a lot of people by willingly engaging in the debate about supervised drug-consumption sites, an idea the Tories deeply oppose, and a topic they vigorously try to avoid.
In the face of an epidemic of drug overdoses, the province has rejected calls to establish supervised-consumption sites — where users have access to overdose-reversing medications and clean drug paraphernalia — that have been proven around the world to saves lives.
However, this week, Mental health and Community Wellness Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte signalled her government might be willing to reconsider safe-consumption as part of an array of addictions services.
On Tuesday Morley-Lecomte took the unusual step of submitting an op-ed commentary to the Free Press on addictions treatment. Although the minister stressed that recovery was the main goal, she noted that “forthcoming measures could open a new window in the future for licensed and regulated supervised-consumption sites to be established in Manitoba.”
At the same time, the PC government introduced Bill 33, the Addiction Services Act, which establishes a protocol for the licensing of supervised-consumption sites.
Manitoba had no such protocol because it did not support supervised consumption; Sunshine House, Winnipeg’s only safe-consumption agency, received a federal government exemption to operate without any provincial involvement.
When you combine the two gestures, could this signal a seismic shift in the Tory position?
Harm-reduction advocates are still trying to decode the cryptic undertones of Morley-Lecomte’s sudden interest in supervised consumption. Even so, the early reviews are not positive. In short, the advocates believe the Tories have found a way to tacitly support supervised consumption without allowing any sites to open.
Bill 33 includes a very detailed application process that each facility must go through to be formally licensed by the province. In almost all regards, the process mimics the federal government’s process for issuing an exemption.
This new process would take months to complete and could — even in instances where a federal exemption has been granted — result in an agency being denied the opportunity to provide supervised consumption support.
In demanding a second application process, the Tories appear to be trying to bury prospective facilities in layers upon layers, and months upon months, of bureaucratic obstruction, during which the government can claim it supports safe consumption.
Pre-existing agencies — and by that we mean Sunshine House — would have to re-apply to continue operating its mobile overdose-prevention van.
Is this opening a window to more supervised consumption?
No one is arguing against a vetting process; Ottawa already performs a thorough review of all sites. But in demanding a second application process, the Tories appear to be trying to bury prospective facilities in layers upon layers, and months upon months, of bureaucratic obstruction, during which the government can claim it supports safe consumption.
It would be a clever move on the part of the Tories if it weren’t so clearly a dodge. A joint statement from the Main Street Project, Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, Moms Stop the Harm and Overdose Awareness Manitoba — a coalition of front-line agencies that represent thousands of Manitobans working to save lives — portrays Bill 33 as less of an open window and more of a bait-and-switch.
“This bill does not ‘open the door’ to supervised-consumption sites,” the joint statement read. “Rather, it closes that door under the cover of regulation.”
Notwithstanding the cruelness of the Tory charade, Morley-Lecomte’s commentary provides the clearest evidence to date of how confused and misguided her party is on the issue.
In her commentary, Morley-Lecomte unfairly accused the advocates of supervised-consumption sites as seeking a “singular focus” on harm reduction to address addictions. She wrote that “too often advocates of harm reduction profess mistakenly that supervised consumption sites are the ‘silver bullet.’”
If she actually believes that, then Morley-Lecomte hasn’t been listening to the chorus of voices demanding support for harm reduction.
None of the harm-reduction advocates have suggested that supervised consumption is the only way of addressing addictions; they all agree that both harm reduction and treatment must be available. To suggest otherwise is unfair and uninformed.
But the fallacious reasoning goes much deeper than that silly allegation.
In her Free Press commentary, the minister wrote that her government’s goal was to give those suffering from addictions “a fighting chance at recovery instead of just enabling them to continue using.”
That last bit — enabling them to continue using — lays bare the Tory mindset on this issue.
A harm-reduction strategy is about saving lives by reducing overdoses and in so doing, cutting down massively on the number of times that emergency medical treatment is required.
Although treatment and recovery are worthy goals, a harm-reduction strategy is about saving lives by reducing overdoses and in so doing, cutting down massively on the number of times that emergency medical treatment is required.
The most cynical way of interpreting the comments is this: in a somewhat naive attempt to “cure” addicts, Morley-Lecomte and the government are more than willing to let those who cannot engage in treatment programs die from overdoses. Or, put another way, the people who need supervised-consumption sites are not worthy of saving.
In her comments on the recently tabled provincial budget, Premier Heather Stefanson suggested that she was leading her government and party back to its roots as “progressive on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues.”
Although it’s unclear what she meant by socially progressive, we can assume the definition falls well short of harm reduction for addicts.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.