Bill C-2: An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, has created controversy in the House of Commons. The short title has been dubbed the Respect for Communities Act.
The bill aims to amend Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), which deals with the Minister of Health’s power to grant exemptions regarding the operation of supervised injection sites throughout Canada.
Exemption by Minister
56. The Minister may, on such terms and conditions as the Minister deems necessary, exempt any person or class of persons or any controlled substance or precursor or any class thereof from the application of all or any of the provisions of this Act or the regulations if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.
Currently, only one safe injection site exists in Canada, called Insite, which operates under the CDSA exemption, located in Vancouver’s downtown East Side in British Columbia. A three-year conditional exemption was granted by the Minister of Health back in September 2003 and funded by British Columbia’s Ministry of Health Services. There are no known plans for other safe injection sites across Canada, although Insite has proven to be a harm-reduction and best-practice model by researchers and experts around the world. Endorsements for the supervised injection site approach includes the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.
What is Insite? Watch a two-minute video here.
What has research about Insite shown? Read the 2008 report here.
Bill C-2 has come under fire by opposition MPs, including MP and Deputy Leader of the New Democratic Party Megan Leslie. This is because a Supreme Court of Canada decision, Canada (AG) v PHS Community Services Society,  SCC 44, 3 SCR 134 seems to suggest the opposite of what Bill C-2 proposes. The decision was released September 30, 2011.
Instead of the Minister of Health taking responsibility to grant exemptions as was done in the case of Insite in 2003, Bill C-2 attempts to shift the onus to communities, health clinics, and local experts to demonstrate the advantages of such a model within a particular jurisdiction. However, local addictions experts and community workers have acknowledged the difficulty in obtaining federal funding for initiatives geared toward harm reduction itself.
For a detailed account of the background, facts, and Supreme Court of Canada decision highlights, you can watch Megan Leslie’s remarks published Nov. 21, 2013.
One highlight from the Supreme Court of Canada decision includes:
On future applications, the Minister must exercise that discretion within the constraints imposed by the law and the Charter, aiming to strike the appropriate balance between achieving public health and public safety. In accordance with the Charter, the Minister must consider whether denying an exemption would cause deprivations of life and security of the person that are not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. Where, as here, a supervised injection site will decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little or no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the Minister should generally grant an exemption.
Megan Leslie points out that there is no mention of the balance between public health and public safety nor “harm reduction” language in Bill C-2. The video clip captures the essence of the debate—and lack of consensus on the approach to be taken—on a topic that has become increasingly politicized.