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Montreal aims to follow Vancouver’s injection site lead

Vancouver may not be the only jurisdiction in North America to have supervised drug injection sites for long.

Montreal Public Health announced Thursday that it intends to apply for Health Canada exemptions to operate four supervised injection sites.

The plan, expected to cost $2.7 million a year, includes three permanent sites and one mobile centre that will allow at-risk drug users to inject drugs with clean equipment and under the supervision of nurses.

Richard Massé, director of Montreal Public Health, said the city has an estimated 4,000 drug users, a quarter of which are homeless and 18 per cent that are HIV positive.

“It’s a fairly significant population,” said Massé. “With these centres, we very well might be able to serve 300 to 600 people a day.”

Vancouver is currently the only city in North America with supervised injection sites.

It has two, one at the Dr. Peter Centre in the West End treating patients with HIV/AIDS and Insite in the Downtown Eastside (which opened 10 years ago).

Massé said his team has visited and consulted with both sites.

Insite architect Sean McEwen has even redesigned plans for one of the proposed Montreal sites.

“We have been in touch with Insite and the Dr. Peter Centre a number of times and they have provided us with the protocols they have been using,” said Massé. “The evaluations on Insite have been invaluable to us. It’s been significant because we can show the benefits it has to our communities.”

But officials in Montreal know they still face an uphill battle in the form of the federal government.

The Conservative government in June introduced the Respect for Communities Act (Bill C-2), aimed at toughening the application process for operators looking for Health Canada approval for supervised drug consumption sites.

“Our government believes that creating a location for sanctioned use of drugs obtained from illicit sources has the potential for great harm in a community,” said Leona Aglukkaq, the health minister at the time.

Massé intends to submit Montreal Public Health’s plans to Health Canada for approval before the legislation is passed, and hopes the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling against the government in its ill-fated bid to shut down Insite will offer some protection.

Mark Townsend, executive director of Insite co-operator Portland Hotel Society, says he’s excited Montreal has put its cards on the table.

“We’re desperate to have someone else do it,” said Townsend. “I wanted this to happen a decade ago. It takes the pressure of us and normalizes [injection sites] if we’re not the only ones.”

Insite, run in partnership with the Portland Hotel Society and Vancouver Coastal Health, has more than 1.8 million visits since it opened in 2003 and has the public support of the city, police department and provincial government.

There hasn’t been a single overdose death at the site in that time, and studies credit the injection site with cutting the spread of transmittable diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.

Yet until Thursday, no other city has formally announced it plans to open supervised injection sites of its own.

Massé thinks now that Montreal has, other interested cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton won’t be far behind.

“We have a network of cities looking at it and I think they’ll be ready very soon to apply with Health Canada,” he said.

Montreal hopes its application will be approved by the provincial Ministry of Health (which has been supportive of supervised injection sites) within a couple of weeks, clearing the way for Montreal Public Health to file for federal approval.

If approved quickly and funding is secured, Massé said the first two injection sites could be operational by spring.

-with files from The Canadian Press

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