Political fight brewing with feds over Montreal safe injection sites
The city needs a federal exemption to offer safe injection services to the city’s drug addicts. But Ottawa is opposed and mayor Denis Coderre has vowed to proceed anyway.
By: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours, Staff Reporter
Jun 08 2015 - For Sandhia Vadlamudy, the answer is obvious: “to prevent overdoses, save lives, and avoid the transmission of infections” in Montreal, a network of safe injection sites is necessary.
But Vadlamudy, who heads one of the busiest clean needle distribution centres in the city, does not have to convince Mayor Denis Coderre, who is firmly behind the project.
Instead, a political fight is brewing between the city and Ottawa, as Montreal officials said last week they would be moving forward with a plan to establish three fixed injection sites and one mobile unit — with or without federal approval.
“It's a political battle . . . that is not new,” said Vadlamudy, executive director of Cactus Montreal, a community centre that works to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases, and distributes 600,000 clean needles every year.
“(The federal government) is treating the question as if it's an ideological and moral question, while we're talking about respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and access to an essential health service.”
The city's plan would add nurses to three community groups in the city's south-east borough — CACTUS Montreal, Dopamine, Spectre de rue and l'Anonyme — to administer safe injections. It would also launch a mobile unit.
These facilities allow addicts to inject illegal drugs with clean materials under the supervision of a nurse.
The Quebec government supports the city's plan, and will provide $2.6 million in annual funding. Montreal public health officials, meanwhile, submitted a request to Health Canada in May to receive an exemption to launch the service.
That exemption is necessary under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
The Canadian Press reported that Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre told a press conference last Thursday that the city was prepared to set up the injection sites by next fall whether or not the exemption is granted.
“There is no time to play games,” he said. “It's not a matter to buy time – I'm not going to fall for that. We are solid and we are going to do it anyway.”
Safe-injection sites, Coderre said in a statement, promote “better cohabitation in public places by reducing injection in public places and syringes left behind, as well as 911 calls made by citizens worried about these problems.”
The services “are an effective response to complex human and social problems,” added Sonia Bélanger, president and CEO of the Montreal-Centre-West CIUSSS, a university-affiliated health and social services network.
But the federal government is opposed to supervised drug-injection centres, saying they could pose a danger to communities and encourage drug use.
On Thursday, Federal Minister of Health Rona Ambrose said an exemption would not be granted until Montreal holds a public consultation.
“It's not a surprise to me that the mayor of Montreal — who is a former teammate of Justin Trudeau — wants to open heroin injection sites without any public consultation,” Ambrose said on Thursday, according to The Canadian Press.
“But we have a piece of legislation through the house that will require that if a heroin injection site wants to be opened up in a new neighbourhood, the public and the neighbourhood must be consulted,” she said.
Sean Upton, a spokesperson for Health Canada, told the Star in an emailed statement that all applications for exemptions “will be reviewed and given careful consideration, on a case-by-case basis.”
Without an exemption, Upton said, “the issue would be a matter for local law enforcement who investigate contraventions of the Act.”
In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada provided Insite, a supervised injection centre in Vancouver, with a constitutional reprieve to continue operating .
The court ruled that the federal government must grant exemptions “within the constraints imposed by the law and the Charter, aiming to strike the appropriate balance between public health and public safety.”
Meanwhile, Sandhia Vadlamudy said she understood the concerns that arise around safe injection services, including fears the centres will attract drug users, or harm the neighbourhoods within which they are set up.
But the addicts who will use the service already frequent Cactus Montreal, she said, and a mechanism will be in place to handle any problems between community members and the clients.
“We were inspired by what happened elsewhere to develop a Montreal model . . . which takes into account improvements to quality of life in the communities.”
Source: Toronto Star
"Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services"
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