Manitoba proposes rules for supervised consumption sites ⁠— but still won’t endorse harm-reduction approach

The Manitoba government won’t stand in the way of supervised consumption sites being built in the province, but new legislation introduced Tuesday doesn’t represent a complete reversal to the province’s long-standing opposition to the harm-reduction approach. 

The proposed bill from Mental Health Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte would establish licensing requirements for addiction treatment centres, including supervised consumption sites.

Morley-Lecomte says Manitoba cannot prevent these types of addiction supports from being established since the federal government already made exemptions to allow these sites to operate.

She said the province is developing safeguards — just in case.

“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,” she told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

Province appeared to pivot on opposition

The Progressive Conservative government appeared to show a sudden openness to supervised consumption sites after Morley-Lecomte wrote an opinion piece, published in two Winnipeg newspapers this week, that stated “forthcoming measures could open a new window in the future for licenses and regulated supervised consumption sites.”

She wrote the federal exemptions “raises concerns about the potential of fly-by-night operations” and that Manitoba is “prepared to take action to ensure necessary protections are in place.”

In practice, the bill provides the rules that must be followed, including proper medical supervision and other standards of care, but doesn’t assist a proponent in developing the site.

Up until this point, the government has staunchly opposed supervised consumption sites, which advocates argue have routinely saved lives from drug overdoses. More than 80 front-line organizations and service providers signed a letter late last year, asking the province to reconsider its opposition.

Five months ago, former mental health minister Sarah Guillemard was criticized for dismissing the evidence that supports supervised consumption sites and saying that the “strongest harm reduction strategy is actually to encourage individuals off of the drugs that are harmful.”

Premier Heather Stefanson has repeatedly cited safety and crime in explaining her opposition to supervised consumption sites.

Manitoba is the only province west of Atlantic Canada without the harm-reduction approach.

The bill, introduced Tuesday by the government, also spells out the kind of services that addiction treatment centres could offer and the standards of care. People who break the rules could be fined up to $50,000 per day.

The Opposition New Democrats say the government is putting more hurdles in the way of treatment centres and should open a supervised consumption site on its own.

NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara sits in front of a backdrop banner with the NDP logo on it.
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the province isn’t giving the overdose crisis the attention it deserves. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

“This government brings forward a bill that will do nothing whatsoever to ensure that Manitobans struggling with addictions right now get the support that they need, that folks who maybe could be prevented from having an overdose, get that care and are put in contact with the right people who can help them with that,” Uzoma Asagwara, NDP’s health critic, said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the government is addressing a need by developing standards for addiction treatment centres. He said he’s surprised it took until 2023 for standards to be set.

“I genuinely see this as a basic quality control measure because there’s no safety right now,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Morley-Lecomte was in Portage la Prairie, Man., to announce funding to establish seven additional treatment beds: four in Brandon, two in Ashern and one in Portage la Prairie. The beds will help up to 300 people struggling with addictions access treatment.

The announcement supports the government’s pledge to create 1,000 new addiction treatment spaces. The province estimates each bed represents 52 treatment spaces, as one person can be helped every week, on average.