The federal government has announced a new national drugs strategy that will make it easier for communities to open safe-injection sites and for border guards to stop shipments of drugs like fentanyl from entering the country.

The Liberals introduced Bill C-37 on Monday, which proposes changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Canadian Customs Act and the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Finances Act.

Health Minister Jane Philpott told reporters the new Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy will “reframe” drugs as “the public health issue that it is” and return the lead on the file from the minister of justice to the health minister.

The news comes amid a growing number of deaths from powerful opioid drugs like fentanyl. Philpott told CTV’s Power Play just after the announcement that public health officials anticipate as many as 3,000 Canadians will die from an overdosing on opioids this year. That’s compared to an expected 2,100 to 2,200 deaths from motor vehicle collisions.

“You’re more likely to die of an opioid than a car accident in this country,” Philpott said.

Earlier, in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Alain Rayes called safe-injection sites a “delicate issue” and demanded to know whether the Liberals would maintain requirements for “major consultations” that the Conservatives introduced in 2015. The changes, known as the Respect for Communities Act, were put in place after the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the government should allow injection sites to open so long as there is evidence they will decrease the risk of death and disease and little evidence of a risk to public safety.

Philpott told Power Play that the new law will repeal all 26 of the requirements put in place with the Respect for Communities Act and replace them with just five conditions:

  • a demonstrated need for the site to exist
  • appropriate consultation of the community
  • evidence about whether there would be an impact on crime
  • evidence that regulatory systems are in place
  • evidence that appropriate resources are in place

Philpott added that the government is also committed to “increasing access to mental health supports and recognizing that people find their way to addiction often through trauma that has taken place in their lives.”

There are currently only two legal safe-injection sites in Canada, both in Vancouver, but dozens of cities including Toronto and Montreal have applied to open them.

Philpott said she will soon offer “status updates” on those applications and work with applicants on “what needs to be done to get those sites approved.”

The measure was applauded by the NDP and Liberal B.C. Premier Christy Clark, although both are calling on the federal government to go a step further and declare the epidemic a national health emergency.

Meanwhile, some police say they are concerned about the impact of injection sites in their communities. Former Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Chris Lewis said “the proof will be in the pudding down the road when you see some of these communities turned into war zones.”

Border crackdown

The bill would also prohibit the unregistered importation of pill presses that are used to transform tiny amounts of powdered drugs like fentanyl into a form that can be easily sold on the streets.

The government also plans to begin allowing border guards to open international packages of any weight “should they have reasonable grounds to suspect the item may contain prohibited, controlled or regulated goods,” according to a press release.

As it stands, border officers can only open packages weighing 30 grams or more, despite the fact that a fentanyl -- much of it imported from countries like China -- weighs almost nothing.

“That 30 gram packet that comes through the border … could have up to 15,000 lethal doses,” Philpott told CTV’s Power Play.

With a report from CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson