Planned Manitoba rules are a barrier to safe drug consumption sites, critics charge

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has decided to stop fighting the idea of supervised drug consumption sites and instead set up a new licensing system that would require the sites and other treatment centres to follow guidelines or face fines.

"We can't stop them under the federal exemptions, but what we can do through the standardization of our policies (is) ensure that anyone accessing is able to seek it in a safe environment," Janice Morley-Lecomte, the minister for mental health and community wellness, said Tuesday.

The Progressive Conservative government has long opposed calls to allow supervised consumption sites, and Manitoba has been the only province west of the Maritimes without one. Premier Heather Stefanson and other Tories have said such sites are not the only solution, and people facing addiction need to be guided toward treatment and recovery services.

Last fall, Sunshine House received a federal exemption under drug laws to operate a mobile overdose prevention van in central Winnipeg with harm-reduction supplies on board.

Morley-Lecomte introduced a bill in the legislature Tuesday that, if passed into law, would require supervised consumption sites, addiction centres with beds and withdrawal-management services to apply for a provincial licence.

The licence would spell out what kind of services can be offered, set standards of care and require minimum levels of medical supervision, among other items. The province would have inspectors to enforce the law, and providers that break the rules could face fines of up to $50,000 per day.

Morley-Lecomte, who said she continues to have "significant concerns" with supervised consumption sites, said the licensing system will protect people and guide them to recovery

"This will ensure that if anyone is accessing a service, there is long-term followup, there are medical individuals on-site … and safety is ensured," she said.

The Opposition New Democrats said the government's bill seems aimed at making it harder for anyone to offer addiction treatment at a time when fatal drug overdoses have been rising.

"This government can actually open a safe consumption site (on its own)," said Bernadette Smith, the NDP mental health and addictions critic said.

"They're refusing to (and) now they're putting barriers in place for groups that are actually doing the work."

It's not clear whether the bill will be passed into law before the Oct. 3 election. The NDP have the right to hold up passage of five bills beyond the summer break that starts on June 1 and have not yet decided which ones they will choose.

Morley-Lecomte also announced details of a plan announced in last week's budget to expand the number of addiction treatment beds in the province.

Some $12 million will go to allow up to 300 more people to get help with new beds at public facilities in communities including Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Ashern.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2023

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press