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New safe injection sites will be in place ahead of federal legislation change: Lake

Changes are coming to a restrictive federal law, but B.C.'s health minister says health agencies won't have to wait to have applications sped up

Terry Lake, B.C.'s Health Minister, has been lobbying his federal counterpart to ease restrictions that make it very difficult to open new safe injection sites

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Terry Lake, B.C.'s Health Minister, has been lobbying his federal counterpart to ease restrictions that make it very difficult to open new safe injection sites

B.C.’s health minister believes health agencies won’t necessarily have to wait for federal legislation to pass before having their existing new safe injection site applications sped up.

“Even under that existing regime I know the minister’s officials at Health Canada have talked directly to Vancouver Coastal Health to try to expedite the two applications that they have at the moment,” said Terry Lake at the opening of an emergency mobile medical unit in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Legislation brought in by the previous Conservative government requires an onerous and lengthy consultation process that has made opening new sites very difficult. Currently only two legal safe injection sites, both in Vancouver, operate in Canada.

On Dec. 12, Health Minister Jane Philpott introduced a bill to streamline the applications process, cutting down the number of requirements from 26 to five.

“You have to do up to 90 days of consultation, but in circumstances where you have to show there is acute need and you can convince the minister, you may not have to wait 90 days,” Lake said. By early 2017, Lake he expects to see new supervised consumption sites in Victoria, Surrey, Kamloops and Kelowna.

Already this year, 622 people have died of drug overdoses in British Columbia as fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid added to drugs like heroin and cocaine has become ubiquitous. Health officials warned last week that the crisis is worsening, likely because of the appearance of carfentanil, a much more potent variation.

B.C.'s mobile medical unit, an emergency room on wheels, has been set up in the Downtown Eastside in an attempt to ease the burden on the health care system and better connect people who are addicted to drugs to treatment

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

B.C.'s mobile medical unit, an emergency room on wheels, has been set up in the Downtown Eastside in an attempt to ease the burden on the health care system and better connect people who are addicted to drugs to treatment

Last week, the province announced the creation of several overdose prevention sites in Victoria, Vancouver, Surrey and Prince George. Health officials say those sites are not safe injection sites, but are simply connecting drug users with first-aid providers during the current emergency.

Lake said Philpott has shown no objection to the overdose prevention sites.

The mobile medical unit (MMU) has been set up in a city-owned lot at 58 W. Hastings. It was last used in Whistler during the Olympics and is designed to function as a mobile emergency room.

Dr. Keith Ahamad and Dr. Eric Grafstein will be part of the medical staff at the mobile medical unit: “There is a lot of harm that’s going unmeasured from untreated addiction right now.

Jen St. Denis

Dr. Keith Ahamad and Dr. Eric Grafstein will be part of the medical staff at the mobile medical unit: “There is a lot of harm that’s going unmeasured from untreated addiction right now."

Doctors from St. Paul’s Hospital who specialize in addictions medicine will staff the MMU. The hope is to both treat overdoses and then connect patients with long-term addictions treatments, such as suboxone, while also using BC Ambulance resources more efficiently.

Dr. Keith Ahamad said he believes numbers reported by the BC Coroner likely under-report the number of deaths ultimately caused by overdoses, because many times people suffer irreparable brain damage and then succumb to a complication.

“There is a lot of harm that’s going unmeasured from untreated addiction right now,” said Dr. Ahamad, who will work at the MMU.

“Our addiction team at St. Paul’s is following upwards of 18 to 25 per cent of the hospital at any one time.”

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