Mr. Speaker, I rise today to oppose Bill C-2. What the Conservatives are trying to do with the bill is quite clear, despite their pretending to do something quite the opposite. The consequences of the bill will prove to be very dire for the most vulnerable in our society and very costly for our health care system.
While the bill pretends to address public health and safety concerns about safe injection sites, in fact it has three other completely different goals. I believe the bill aims to shut down InSite, the supervised injection site in east Vancouver, and to prevent any other supervised sites from operating. I believe it aims to nullify the 2011 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favour safe injection sites, and I believe it constitutes a further attack on the principle of harm reduction.
The question of why the government would pretend to facilitate safe injection sites is in some respects easy to answer. Conservatives know the bill flies in the face of informed public opinion, so it is necessary to create false distractions by manufacturing concern over safe injection sites as threats to public health and safety, when in fact the evidence shows directly the opposite to be true. The bill raises the spectre of neighbourhood opposition to safe injection sites when surveys show that 80% of those living and working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside support InSite, the existing safe injection site.
Bill C-2 pretends to implement the 2011 unanimous Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the case of Canada v. PHS Community Services Society, the decision upholding the right of InSite to operate and upholding the charter rights of those who are addicted to receive health care services.
Yet in its “principles”, Bill C-2 makes no reference to public health and no reference to any of the principles on which the Supreme Court of Canada decision was based. This indeed is a bill that will result in litigation, as its intent seems to be an end run around the Supreme Court decision on safe injection sites. Cynics might even say the government might welcome endless litigation, which would not only delay new safe injection sites but also consume the scarce resources of organizations that have a different view from the government on how best to address the addiction crisis in our communities.
The Conservatives also know that the false concerns about public health and safety that Bill C-2 raises will appeal to their narrow base who believe with a near religious fervour and a clear disdain for evidence that being tough on crime will somehow solve addiction problems.
Let me talk a little about each of these three not-so-hidden aims of Bill C-2: shutting down safe injection sites, getting around the Supreme Court ruling and destroying harm reduction programs. Bill C-2 pretends to facilitate the licensing of safe consumption sites, while instead creating a long list of criteria for licensing and setting up a system without any requirement for the timely disposition of those applications. The bill lists 26 criteria on which applications will be judged, literally A to Z in that section. It establishes long timelines for public consultation on an application, but imposes no timelines on the minister for actually making decisions.
Perhaps my greatest concern about the bill is the ultimate discretion granted to the minister. In the bill, the minister “may” grant a permit for a safe injection site that has met all the criteria, when in fact what I believe the bill should read is that the minister “must” grant a permit if the criteria are met.
As I said, Bill C-2 purports to implement the 2011 unanimous Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favour of safe injection sites. In this decision, the Supreme Court of Canada clearly found that safe injection sites save lives. The court ruled that the existing site should remain open with a section 56 exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
The court ruled that InSite users have a charter right to access the service and that similar services elsewhere should be allowed to operate with an exemption. The court did not say we need a new bill and a new process.
Finally, Bill C-2 pretends to be about public health and safety, when it actually aims to dismantle an important harm reduction program. It ignores the very evidence that exists on the positive impacts of InSite. More than 300 peer-reviewed scientific studies have demonstrated that safe injection sites effectively reduce the risk of contracting and spreading blood-borne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, as well as reducing deaths to zero from overdoses. In a study conducted over a one-year period, there were 273 overdoses at InSite. None of these resulted in fatality.
Bill C-2 also ignores the real savings to both health care and public safety budgets that come from safe injection sites. They ignore the real savings in terms of reduced demand on first responders and emergency rooms with the reduction in overdoses, and they ignore the increased number of clients who actually get into treatment programs as a result of visiting save injection sites.
Dr. Evan Wood, a renowned scientist who works for the B.C. Centre of Excellence in HIV/AIDS, points out that one of the important aspects of a safe injection site is that, given that each HIV infection costs on average approximately $500,000 in medical costs, [InSite] has contributed to a 90% reduction in new HIV cases caused by intravenous drug use in British Columbia, which is why the B.C. government has been such a strong supporter of the program.
When the evidence is clear, how can we proceed with a bill such as this, which intends to frustrate the creation of new safe injection sites? Unfortunately, I believe Bill C-2 is part of the Conservative agenda to eliminate harm reduction programs. We saw this agenda begin in 2007, when the government removed the term “harm reduction” from the list of goals of Canada's national drug strategy.
I am standing here today because there is a need for action to address the crisis in overdoses in my own community that the provincial health authority, social service agencies and local police are trying to address. The most recent B.C. Coroner's Report from October 2012 found that there were 44 deaths from illicit drug use on Vancouver Island in 2011, with 16 of those occurring in greater Victoria. This makes Vancouver Island the region with the highest rate of deaths related to illicit drug use in British Columbia at 7.88 per 100,000 residents.
According to the Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria, this makes the local per capita death rate nearly 30% higher than that in the Lower Mainland. If people need evidence of the positive impact of InSite versus a community such as mine, which does not have access to a safe injection site, they should keep that figure in mind. There is a 30% higher death rate from overdoses on Vancouver Island than where a safe injection site exists in the Lower Mainland. The need for action in my community is very clear, yet Bill C-2 would take away the best tool for responding to this health crisis. It would take a safe injection site off the table for my community.
I have one last question. Why the rush? It was surprising to see Bill C-2 as the first bill the Conservative government brought forward for debate in the second session of the 41st Parliament. Yes, it would help re-establish its tough-on-crime credentials, but more importantly I suspect the Conservatives are in a rush to bring in this new law to head off the opening of new safe injection sites, as there are some applications for section 56 exemptions that are quite advanced. What they want to do is change the law and send the applicants back to the drawing board under this new legislation with its long delays and near impossible criteria.
The real threat to public health and safety in my community turns out to be the narrow ideological agenda of the Conservative government, which ignores the evidence of the real contribution that safe injection sites make to public health and safety. It has already sent a fundraising letter to its base talking about donating to the Conservatives to help them keep drugs out of our backyards. Ironically, of course, that is exactly what safe injection sites do. They move drug use off the streets and out of our backyards into a safer setting for both those who are injection drug users and our communities as a whole.
New Democrats are opposing the bill at second reading and sending the bill to the Standing Committee on Public Safety. I would say this is another piece of Conservative propaganda around safe injection sites. Why is the bill not going to the health committee where it belongs? This, as the Supreme Court of Canada pointed out, is clearly a health issue and not a public safety issue. The NDP will be calling witnesses in committee to bring the evidence, once again, to the attention of Conservatives of the very positive role that safe injection sites play in both public health and safety. The very fact that the Conservatives have chosen to send the bill to the public safety committee illustrates to me their intention to distract the public by characterizing safe injection sites as a threat to public safety rather than an important health measure that would save both lives and money.