OTTAWA - The federal government has made it nearly impossible to obtain approvals for new supervised drug-injection sites, opposition parties and health groups said Monday as they came to grips with a controversial new law.
The Respect for Communities Act establishes 26 criteria for the government to consider when reviewing an application for a drug-injection site, and allows sites to operate only in exceptional circumstances.
The government argues the bill, which received royal assent late last week, brings clarity and transparency to the application process, and requires information to better balance public health and public safety.
Applicants are now required to provide medical and scientific evidence for proposed sites, along with letters from stakeholders including provincial health ministers, the head of the police force in the area and regional health officials.
"This law requires that the voices of law enforcement and parents be heard before drug injection sites can be considered to open in local neighbourhoods," Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in a statement.
NDP deputy leader Libby Davies said the legislation is a political tool to "whip up" the Conservative base that's not based on medical evidence.
The Vancouver MP and longtime advocate of safe-injection sites said the government tried to create as many hurdles as possible for future applicants.
It will also make it harder for Insite — Canada's first injection site, which resides in her riding — to renew its paperwork annually, she said.
"The Conservatives, they did it deliberately," Davies said. "They ... consciously worked on, 'How do we make this as difficult as possible.'"
In a 2011 decision, the Supreme Court found Insite saved lives and improved health without increasing drug use and crime in the surrounding area.
It said the government should "generally grant an exemption" required to legally operate a supervised injection site if the evidence indicates it will decrease the risk of death and disease and it will have little impact on public safety.
Davies said she suspects the legal fight is not over with the passage of the government's bill.
"I still think safe consumption sites will go ahead," she said. "I think it is either going to end back up in court or a province will just go ahead anyway, in which case it may end up in court."
Several health groups, including the Canadian Nurses Association, say the new law, also known as Bill C-2, contradicts the Supreme Court's ruling and believe it is designed to block the creation of supervised injection sites.
"Despite the evidence and the direction given by the Supreme Court, Bill C-2 seeks to impose unnecessary and excessive barriers to establishing supervised injection facilities," the association said in its submission to the Senate legal committee.
"Bill C-2 appears to be founded on ideology rather than evidence, since it views safe injection sites as enabling and normalizing drug use in communities rather than acknowledging them as a vital health service for vulnerable populations."
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