Vancouver safe-injection site at HIV-AIDS facility gains federal approval
Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
VANCOUVER -- Health Canada has granted approval for a second safe-injection site in Vancouver -- 14 years after the HIV-AIDS treatment facility began allowing patients to shoot up their own illicit drugs.
The Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation has run a safe-injection program since 2002, and for several years mistakenly believed its patients were exempt from Canada's drug laws.
The approval of an application on Friday grants the Dr. Peter Centre a two-year licence, meaning patients can continue injecting their own drugs under the supervision of a nurse without anyone being charged under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
"This decision by Health Canada experts was arrived at after a rigorous, evidence-based review that included an assessment of the centre's application, an inspection of the facility, and the establishment of terms and conditions to protect public health and safety," Health Minister Jane Philpott said in a statement.
She said international and Canadian evidence shows that safe-injection sites have the potential to save lives and improve health without increasing drug use and crime in surrounding areas.
The centre's executive director Maxine Davis said the exemption is a significant step forward for health care in Canada because supervised injection reduces the harms of drug use for addicts and prevents the spread of diseases such as hepatitis C from shared needles.
Several cities, including Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay, Ont., have contacted the centre for its expertise, Davis said.
"We've had visits from all of those cities and many other cities across the country that are moving along the path of conversation with their local municipalities on this matter," she said. "They're interested in that integrated approach, not only for an opportunity for people to be supervised for injecting the drugs, but for a broad range of health care right there in the environment."
Davis said the centre has 350 patients in its day program and 63 per cent of the injection-drug users have had counselling.
Three patients at a time are allowed into a room where a nurse observes them injecting drugs and is ready to intervene in case of any overdoses, she said.
The centre's current application for exemption, filed in January 2014, had broad support, including from the provincial government, the Vancouver Police Department and 150 local businesses that were grateful not to have HIV-AIDS patients injecting themselves on the streets, Davis said.
Insite, another safe-injection facility in Vancouver, allows any injection drug users to shoot up as a nurse observes. Its current one-year exemption licence will expire in March.
As North America's only such clinic, it opened in 2003 as part of a harm-reduction plan to tackle an epidemic of HIV-AIDS and drug overdose deaths. But its existence remained tenuous under the previous federal government.
The Conservatives waged a long legal battle against the site but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the facility could stay open because it provided addicts with needed health care.
Tiffany Atkins, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, which provides $4 million in funding for the Dr. Peter Centre, said the health authority submitted an application to Health Canada for both safe-injection sites in 2003.
"Both parties and Health Canada were under the impression that the exemption had been granted," she said.
"In 2006, when (Vancouver Coastal) applied for an exemption extension, it was determined that the initial Dr. Peter Centre exemption had never been fully processed. Some paperwork had been misplaced (by the health authority) and not processed."
British Columbia's Health Minister Terry Lake said the licence is "excellent news" for public health and safety because they prevent overdose deaths and have become a valued part of health services for HIV patients.
The Dr. Peter Centre is named after physician Dr. Peter Jepson-Jones, who was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS in 1985 and later shared his story on a weekly TV news segment that was nominated for an Academy Award.