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Health minister says B.C. can't wait for feds' approval during drug crisis

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, from left to right, Bonnie Wilson, Vancouver Coastal Health Director of Home Support, Complex Rehab and Supported Housing, and MLA Jane Thornthwaite, tour a new substance use treatment unit for women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday January 24, 2017.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
January 24, 2017 - 4:30 PM

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's health minister says the province's overdose prevention sites and at least one "sharing room" where people use drugs may not be legal under federal laws but they're intended to save lives.

Terry Lake said an unprecedented opioid epidemic forced the province last month to open the first locations in Vancouver where people could inject illicit drugs while monitored by trained staff.

Since then, a total of 18 overdose-prevention sites have opened around the province, from the Fraser Valley to the Interior and Prince George at existing locations where people receive addiction supports. Two more sites are pending on Vancouver Island.

"Are we skirting federal law? You could make that argument I guess, but we weren't prepared to wait for changes to save lives," Lake said Tuesday.

The federal government recently introduced legislation to make it easier for provinces to open supervised injection sites but Lake said 914 overdose deaths in B.C. last year meant radical action had to be taken.

"You have to do what you need to do to keep people alive and longer term, obviously, we're pushing the federal government to approve supervised consumption sites as quickly as possible."

Lake made the comments at a news conference where he announced the province will open 38 detox and temporary housing beds in the Downtown Eastside for women trying to get into addiction treatment.

The treatment beds will be located in a building that houses a non-profit organization, which provides housing and support for women affected by violence and abuse.

Ten of the beds will be for women undergoing detox while the remaining 28 beds will provide them with housing for at least six months before or after they enter addiction treatment.

Janice Abbott, chief executive officer of the Atira Women's Resource Society, said the group has opened a so-called sharing room in one of its buildings so people aren't using drugs alone.

"We're not operating injection sites, we're operating shared using rooms," she said at the news conference. "We have freed up space in our buildings where people who are already using alone in their rooms can come together and use together."

The B.C. government has been criticized for not keeping an election promise to open 500 treatment beds by 2017, but Lake said that goal will be met by the end of March.

He said the province is leading every jurisdiction in North America in its efforts to deal with fatal drug overdoses fuelled by the painkiller fentanyl, which is often cut into heroin.

"We can't let this crisis go without getting to a better place and I think we will get there."

Lake noted suboxone has been a frontline treatment for opioid addiction as an alternative to methadone and is covered by the province.

The health minister said he's waiting for new federal laws that would allow more facilities such as Insite, a legal supervised-injection facility in the Downtown Eastside, to inject their own drugs under medical supervision.

British Columbia also provides pharmaceutical heroin for addicts at the Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver, but Lake said there are no plans to expand the program unless addiction specialists make such a recommendation.

— Follow @CamileBains1 on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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