Drug site bill draws praise, criticism from area advocates


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There is mixed reaction in Westman about supervised consumption sites after the Manitoba government signalled potential for a new licensing system that would require treatment centres and sites to follow guidelines or face hefty fines.

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There is mixed reaction in Westman about supervised consumption sites after the Manitoba government signalled potential for a new licensing system that would require treatment centres and sites to follow guidelines or face hefty fines.

The Progressive Conservative government has previously steered away from safe consumption sites for substance users, and last November Premier Heather Stefanson told the Sun that those sites were not the answer to addiction in the province.

However, a change in position came Tuesday when Manitoba’s minister of mental health and community wellness, Janice Morley-Lecomte, introduced a bill in the legislature. If passed into law, a provincial licence would be required for supervised consumption sites, addiction centres with beds and withdrawal-management services, with fines up to $50,000 a day for providers that break the rules.

In Brandon, the executive director of the John Howard Society sees the province’s pivot as a positive step toward ensuring sites are clean, safe and regulated.

“When we want to provide a facility for people to have a safe consumption, it gives the health-care community and the people involved the opportunity to interact with the individuals, talk about harm reduction, and help them find different alternatives,” said Ross Robinson, whose organization supports people involved in the justice system with resources and programs.

There are critics of the province’s potential new law, including Moms Stop the Harm, Overdose Awareness Manitoba, Manitoba Health Coalition and Manitoba Harm Reduction Network.

In a joint statement, the organizations claim there was no consultation initiated by government with any organizations who work with people experiencing addiction, and are calling for the bill to be rescinded.

Late last year, an open letter was sent to the province requesting a conversation about building a robust strategy to address the overdose crisis, according to Manitoba Harm Reduction Network’s executive director, Shohan Illsley.

“None of those groups were consulted in the development of this bill, which to us are red flags,” Illsley said. “And we believe the people who authored the bill have never even visited any mobile overdose prevention sites.”

The challenge for Solange Machado, Brandon Harm Reduction Network’s co-ordinator, is trying to decipher the ins and outs of the bill.

“It’s very vague,” Machado said. “And it looks like this bill is going to make it more challenging and more difficult for organizations to open safe consumption sites. We should be taking away barriers rather than building more.”

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the provincial government of standing in the way of those who are trying to help people living with addictions.

“In Brandon, the conversations are about a sobering facility and beds, and we should be supporting people who are trying to come up with community-led solutions for the addictions crisis,” Kinew said. “The PCs are going to bury organizations in red tape and make it impossible for them to meet the needs of their clients.”

One day after the bill was introduced, the federal government announced funding for harm-reduction initiatives in Manitoba. According to Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, Ottawa is providing $13 million to the Prairies, Northwest Territories and Yukon, with just over $2 million earmarked for Manitoba.

As Bennett made the announcement on Wednesday, she voiced her support for supervised consumption sites, and said Ottawa is working to reduce barriers for people in need.

“We want to make sure that nothing is increasing the barriers to people getting harm reduction,” she said. “We are also committed to evidence-based approaches, not ideology.”

Manitoba is the only province west of the Maritimes without supervised consumption sites, which advocates argue save lives. Users take substances in a supervised space where they can be revived if they overdose.

According to recently released data from the province, overdoses caused 377 deaths between January and November 2022. Data for December is not yet available. In 2021, 424 Manitobans died from overdoses, compared to 371 in 2020 and 199 in 2019.

More people need to realize that addiction is rarely a standalone challenge in somebody’s life, Robinson said.

“We have a role to educate people, but people have a role to educate themselves to see the person rather than seeing the addiction, that is the only way we’re going to get better,” he said.

» mmcdougall@brandonsun.com, with files from the Winnipeg Free Press

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