VANCOUVER - British Columbia is opening new locations where people can inject illicit drugs while monitored by trained staff — but the province says it isn't skirting the law on supervised-injection sites.
The province announced Thursday that its opioid overdose crisis has spurred it to establish three overdose-prevention sites in Vancouver, with more planned in Surrey and Victoria.
Teams of staff will provide people who use illegal drugs with a safe space to be monitored and, if needed, be administered with naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.
"People are dying. We can stop people dying. We're going to take that action," said provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall at a news conference.
Kendall said it wasn't a "supervised-injection site under another name," but an emergency measure to connect people who can deliver naloxone with the places where people are injecting.
He said supervised-injection sites are different because they are specifically designed for people to inject drugs under medical supervision, to receive training on safe injection and to be linked with health care and addiction services, he said.
The new overdose-prevention sites are being established in existing locations where people receive addiction supports, including a needle-exchange depot in the Downtown Eastside. Medical staff, housing staff and volunteers will be available to monitor injections.
Supervised-injection sites, like Vancouver's Insite, require an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from the federal government.
Kendall said the province sought legal advice and was confident it did not require an exemption to establish the new overdose-prevention sites.
The Liberal government has faced criticism for not moving quickly to repeal legislation introduced by the former Conservative government that critics say makes the application process for supervised-injection sites too onerous.
Instead, Health Minister Jane Philpott has said her staff is reviewing the legislation and will amend or remove any barriers to establishing new sites.
Andrew MacKendrick, a spokesman for Philpott, said changes to the law are expected "soon."
As for whether B.C.'s new overdose-prevention sites violated the law in its current form, he said Philpott was informed of the new sites on Thursday and would need time to review the details.
Vancouver submitted two applications for supervised-injection sites in October that are waiting for federal approval.
There have been more than 600 illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. this year. Kendall said he became cautiously optimistic in the summer that overdoses were going down, but the number rose in October and is expected to continue rising when November data is released next week.
The province has spent about $43 million responding to the crisis this year, Kendall said.
No cost estimate was provided for the new sites. Vancouver's chief medical health officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, said the budget for responding to the crisis was open-ended, as it was an emergency.
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake was not available for comment. But he said in a statement the province is seeing an alarming increase in overdose deaths and action is required at all levels to save lives.
Kendall said the idea of overdose-prevention sites was discussed two weeks ago at a meeting of a provincial joint task force.
But the plan was confirmed on Wednesday when Lake convened a meeting to discuss an urgent response to the crisis, said Daly.
A cold snap in Vancouver this week escalated the need to get drug users off the streets, she added.
Three sites opened Thursday in Vancouver, while next week two locations will open in Victoria and two others will open in Surrey. Several more will open later this month in the Downtown Eastside and another in Victoria.
Also next week, the province will station its mobile medical unit in the Downtown Eastside. Emergency doctors and nurses will treat patients in the unit, and addictions physicians will be available to connect drug users with addiction treatment.
The province said the unit will create capacity in emergency departments and allow paramedics to avoid waiting at the ER, freeing them up more quickly for the next 911 call.
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