By Derek Baker, November 20 2017 —
Drug addictions should be treated like health issues, not criminal issues. Unfortunately, the way our governments currently operate suggests the narrative in Canada is still that addictions should be punished.
On Oct. 27, Health Canada approved Calgary’s first supervised consumption site, and it’s being implemented at the downtown Sheldon Chumir Centre. Five other locations have also been approved for the province — four in Edmonton and one in Lethbridge. Alberta’s government had to apply for permission from Health Canada way back in June to create these sites.
In a society fighting an opioid epidemic, the implementation of supervised consumption sites is an essential step towards recovery. These sites are harm-reduction mechanisms that ensure medical staff can monitor substance users in hygienic environments. They also provide a crucial point of contact for addicts to access treatment services.
The decision to implement these sites should be applauded by all. Drug addiction is a public health concern that necessitates healthcare solutions. However, the steps required to approve these sites suggest that drug addiction is still considered a criminal issue instead of a health concern. Though opioids and other illicit substances are listed in the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), provinces shouldn’t have to go to the federal government to seek exemptions for supervised consumption sites if recovery is the true goal.
The legality of supervised consumption sites has been turbulent, culminating in a 2011 Supreme Court of Canada decision. In the case, the federal government alleged that they could deny exemptions to the CDSA to operate safe injection sites. The court ruled against the federal government, declaring that denial of such services constitutes a breach of Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which grants “the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” Provinces must still apply for federal exemptions to set up supervised consumption sites, but because of the ruling it’s now unconstitutional for Ottawa to deny them.
Despite this, it still took five months for Alberta’s applications to be approved. Though Ottawa recently passed Bill C-37, which is aimed to streamline the application process for consumption sites, they could’ve eliminated this step completely if the sites were considered solely health issues and were only under provincial jurisdiction, negating the need for federal input.
The opioid crisis is a health issue, not a criminal issue. Having to seek federal approval for supervised consumption sites creates unnecessary hurdles. In Alberta alone, 586 people died from opioid-related overdoses last year. Our society needs to address the issue as a matter of public health. We must be critical of the current process required to grant supervised consumption sites approval.
Articles published in the Gauntlet‘s opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.