How do you defy the highest court in the land?
If you are the Conservative federal government, you replace a simple, straight-forward law with a gargantuan one that shouts, “In your face, Supreme Court!” In other words, you turn the court’s decision on its head.
That’s what Harper’s government did last Thursday when it introduced Bill C-65. The Bill is their response to the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2011 decision which declared that the Minister of Health must grant Insite, Vancouver’s supervised drug injection facility, an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, so that it can continue to provide health services.
Drug injection facilities are more than a place where drug addicts go to use drugs safely. The facilities promote public health by minimizing the harms associated with street-level, illicit drug use. They reduce incidences of drug overdose, the transmission of diseases through needle sharing, and the rate of serious infection. They increase public safety by reducing crime associated with drug use. The clinics, staffed by doctors, nurses, and therapists trained in dealing with addictions, also provide counselling, referral services, and immediate help to those who are ready to curb their addictions. In turn, all these benefits result in reduced societal costs associated with drug use.
But the Federal government did not like the Supreme Court’s telling it that it should continue to grant Insite the exemption it had since 2003.
To get around the judgement, the government devised Bill C-65.
Under current legislation, the Minister may exempt any person from the application of the CDSA if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest. Plain and simple. The entire section uses up 70 words.
But under Bill C-65, those 70 words are replaced with 2,627 words (not counting the preamble), most of which set up one colossal obstacle after another for any group that hopes to set up a safe injection site.
Under the Bill, applicants will be required to submit reports and letters from the provincial Minister of Health, Minister of Public Safety, the local municipality, the local police, and health professionals, as well as research, statistics, information on trends and other data, and also, significantly, reports on consultations held with a “broad range of community groups from the municipality,” including a summary of the opinions expressed, copies of all written submissions, and submissions on what applicants intend to do about those community concerns. All in all, there are 26 (or more, depending on how you count it) complex, costly, and onerous conditions that must be fulfilled before the Minister will even consider whether or not to grant an exemption.
One might argue, “What is wrong with having stringent requirements for setting up places where, after all, illicit drugs are going to be consumed?” Doesn’t that ensure that these clinics are safer?
On the face of it, the requirements do not appear unreasonable. But the Harper government is well aware of the societal benefits of these facilities. And so, it should advocate for their increased use, where justified. Instead, the government is erecting insurmountable obstacles in the way of anyone who may want to build a safe-injection site.
The truth is that Bill C-65 is not intended to ensure improved safety in the creation of safe-injection clinics. The real intention behind the Bill is to stop any such attempts dead in its tracks.
On the same day the government introduced the Bill, it also started a political public campaign to oppose the building of safe injection clinics anywhere.
Jenny Byrne, the Conservative party’s main tactician, posted a fear-mongering, misleading message on the Conservative party’s web-site. The posting, entitled, “Keep heroin out of our backyards,” both misinforms and misleads the public, and capitalizes on fears based on insufficient information. It suggests to readers that such clinics are about to be set up in every neighbourhood in the country (which is simply untrue), and aims to collect the names of those opposed to such facilities, to allow for the most efficient and effective opposition, should there be a proposal for a safe-injection facility in any municipality. The message from the posting is clear: “We are totally against such clinics, and we’ve introduced the bill to make it harder for similar facilities to be set up elsewhere in the country.”
It’s a sad but unsurprising position and tactic by the Conservative government.
Instead of leading, the Conservative government puts up roadblocks.
Instead of increasing public safety and reducing harm, the Harper government perpetuates the conditions that lead to greater harm and risk to public safety.
Instead of implementing preventative measures that will reduce public spending in the long-run, the Conservative government adopts punitive, harmful policies that will cost us more.
Instead of educating and informing the public about the truth behind addictions, harm reduction, and the benefits of such facilities, the Conservatives engage in a campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering built on simplistic one-liners.
They introduce a Bill that may make it nearly impossible to build another safe-injection site.
The government surely knows that the law may not stand Charter scrutiny. But the Conservatives don’t care about that. They will push ahead with the Bill because it makes it sound like they care about (some) Canadians.
But in doing so, the Harper government harms not only those with addictions, but all Canadians.
In the process, and as an added bonus, the Conservative government also flips its finger at the highest court in the land.