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BILL C-37, CONTROLLED DRUGS AND SUBSTANCES (SECOND READING)

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at second reading of Bill C-37, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other Acts.

Bill C-37 does a number of things, but what I really want to focus on in this speech are the extraordinary exceptions afforded in the so-called supervised consumption sites.

I'm frankly surprised that a government which stood so strongly against omnibus bills while in opposition has crafted a bill like this. The legislation before us combines supportable law enforcement improvements with what I consider an unsupportable drastic policy shift on our strategy for fighting illegal drugs.

This bill makes it easier to open one of the injection sites by reducing the restrictions in the application process and abolishing some of the administrative obstacles placed in the way of these sites by the previous government.

Seemingly, the government's rationale for this policy shift is that they wish to help solve the opioid crisis that is ravaging communities.

A new laissez-faire drug strategy is being adopted by the government which prioritizes something called harm reduction in place of the old strategy, which emphasized prevention and enforcement. "Harm reduction" in this government's terminology means a focus on reducing the negative effects of drug use rather than spending resources fighting it. In plain terms, would you rather help an addict shoot up or spend those same resources to get the drugs off the streets?

Supervised consumption sites, also known as injection sites or injection rooms, are places where people can use their own illegally obtained drugs with the assistance of taxpayer-funded medical staff and taxpayer-funded clean equipment with reversal drugs available. Essentially, an off-the-street facility is provided where drug users consume their own drugs, street drugs, while medical staff supervise and assist.

Sites like these operated illegally in New York City in the 1980s and no doubt still do in some places to this day. The police refer to them as shooting galleries and have expended a lot of effort in shutting them down.

In Canada there is only one facility where this kind of service is available, legally at least, and I'm referring to Insite in Vancouver. Several other applications, however, are pending, including one here in Ottawa.

The current law in force is based on a piece of legislation passed in 2015 called the Respect for Communities Act. It followed a court ruling which forced the government to allow Insite to continue operating after the minister made it clear that the government of the day had no interest in facilitating drug abuse.

To open an injection site, now an organization must satisfy 26 criteria. In addition, there are other principles that the minister must satisfy when assessing a proposed injection site. These criteria are a real harm reduction strategy in that they help reduce the harm to communities, to schoolchildren and to the victims of drug abusers.

Health Canada cannot consider an application until all of these criteria have been satisfied, and when renewing the application, the facility has to check to ensure all the requirements are fulfilled.

The list of criteria was put into place to ensure the safety of communities where they would open. We should not forget that drugs are illegal and harmful to all.

The bill before us, Bill C-37, would change all of that by replacing the list of 26 criteria with five generic factors. These factors were taken directly from the court ruling that started the debate.

If this bill passes, all an injection site would need to address is the impact on crime rates, local conditions indicating need, available supports for the facility and comments from the community. It is very unclear how the crime rates would be assessed, which measures the government would require to demonstrate need or how comprehensive community consultations would be.

The application process proposed in this bill is less rigorous, and a minister can move forward on approving a facility even without the completed application package. This suggests to me that the site may now be approved because of political pressure imposed on the minister rather than an assessment of the impacts these places have or the wishes of the community.

Existing sites will not need to submit new applications for renewal, and the process of revalidating the criteria will become a simple information check in case something has changed. There will be no more assessments or reviews to ensure that these sites fulfill an apparent need or that they have not become a negative force in the community.

Senators, when we have such a drastic shift in policy like this before us, we must consider the public health implications for this and the effect it would have on public safety.

The government's responsibility to Canadians is twofold. Canadians must be protected from criminals, and they must be protected from harmful substances.

We need to re-evaluate Insite in B.C. to see if this kind of approach has had a meaningful impact or, rather, does it do everything that proponents promise it will?

Insite opened in 2003 with funding from British Columbia's provincial government. The site has 12 spots for clients to inject. The product which they use is not provided; it's purchased illegally by addicts and brought into the facility.

In 2006, the federal health minister established an expert committee to evaluate Insite. The findings, published in 2008, were uninspiring. It found that Insite claims to save a life every year that would otherwise be lost to an overdose. Annual overdose deaths in the area around Insite run up to about 50 a year. The minister's committee noted that this claim should be taken with a bit of caution, since it was based on a mathematical modelling rather than on a direct data source.

Part of the reason Insite opened was to try to get ahead of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. The 2008 report noted there was no evidence to suggest Insite had any impact on reducing the local HIV infection rate.

When commenting on the rate of drug-related crimes in the area, the committee did not note any change and went as far as noting a similar facility in Europe was closed because of drug- related loitering.

Most importantly, senators, the report found no evidence to suggest that Insite reduced drug use or general crime rates.

One of the arguments advanced to support injection sites is that they somehow reduce the rate of addicts shooting up in public. This claim is questionable for the simple reason that such sites could never accommodate the thousands of drug addicts in large urban areas, unless it is the government's intention to open a site on every corner.

And the research around these places does not consider the impacts other factors have on public drug use. The availability of a given drug, the presence of local police, the popularity of other methods of drug use, even the weather, are all factors which impact the usage of the sites.

One example from this kind of correlation can be seen in Australia. Sydney opened a supervised injection site in the 1990s which has been evaluated several times. In 2001, the site, known as Sydney Municipally Supervised Injection Centre, reported there was a downward trend in local thefts and robberies, but at the same time, separate data indicated there was also a so-called heroin drought in the city at the time of the study. Naturally, less drugs means less drug use. There was no definitive evidence to establish that this facility had reduced crime rates.

A government-funded evaluation noted that the overdose rates at the injection site were actually 36 times higher than those injecting on the streets. This is hardly surprising given that the facility enables what appears to be risk-free drug binging. The report noted that clients "may have taken more risks and used more heroin than in the [injection facility]."

When testifying before the New South Wales Legislative Council in July 2007, an ex-user of the facility noted:

[The clients] feel a lot more safer, definitely because they know they can be brought back to life straight away. . . . What users look for in heroin and pills is to get the most completely out of it as they can, like virtually be asleep but awake for four - five hours. For instance, to get that you have to test your limits. And by testing your limits that is how you end up dropping . . . .

Similar reasoning can be used to discount the claims that these sites increase public safety by reducing the amount of needles discarded in public. Most injections in Vancouver do not happen at Insite and in fact just couldn't. The numbers are simply not there.

The one unambiguous public health success Insite seems to have had was when the government used Insite as a vector for immunizing patients during an outbreak of pneumococcal pneumonia in 2006.

While medical studies have been generally supportive of Insite — it just sounds so good — studies appearing in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, among others, leave room for some healthy skepticism.

The views of the community around Insite during the minister's evaluation were also interesting. While locals were somewhat supportive of Insite and not likely to associate it with crime, a considerable number of people did feel that, nevertheless, property crime and violent crime had gone up.

This is hardly surprising given that 80 per cent of the clients are criminals who have been to jail at some point, 51 per cent of whom use heroin on a daily basis and 38 per cent of which engage in some sort of sex work to fuel their habits.

The Canadian Police Association supported the regulatory structure imposed by the Respect for Communities Act. Tom Stamatakis, the association's president, noted at committee that supervised injection sites "lead to an increase in criminal behavior and disorder in the surrounding community and have a significant impact on police resources."

When Ottawa began deliberating the opening of an injection site in Sandy Hill, Senator White, a former local police chief, told the Ottawa Citizen there will be an increase in the amount of people using needles.

The current Chief of the Ottawa Police Service commented in January:

We remain concerned that locations will attract crime and disorder. As such, any location selected needs to have community support and an understanding of the realities and issues brought about by having a Supervised Consumption Site in your neighborhood.

These concerns are why legislation currently enforced requires so many conditions.

Returning to the criteria in force, the Respect for Communities Act, requires that an applicant demonstrate with specific data that these kinds of facilities have proven positive impacts on public health.

The act also required that the applicant research potential impacts a prospective facility would have on public safety, which would have to be supported by any information on the prevalence of drug use in the area and the local death rates from overdoses and other factors.

The consultation process established in the existing act is expansive. It requires applicants to talk to community groups, individuals, doctors, nurses and to seek written opinion from local health authorities, provincial governments and public safety agencies. It also protects drug users in that the staff are required to undergo screening and the equipment must be part of a process or procedure that ensures safe storage and use.

I do not support supervised injection sites. I believe they are a poor replacement for effective prevention of drug use and law enforcement. However, if the government must move forward with facilitating these sites, it is incumbent upon them to ensure they are necessary, safe and effective.

I do not see definitive evidence suggesting that these sites are any more effective than the strategy pursued by the previous government. Harm reduction means removing the poison that is afflicting our communities and not inviting it in.

I cannot vote for this bill, and I urge other senators to take a thorough look.