Supervised consumption sites can operate in Winnipeg, with or without provincial approval: Deputy CAO

A supervised consumption site could operate in Winnipeg without the province’s blessing, but it would only work well in conjunction with other services aimed at helping people with addictions, according to new advice to city council.

In a report to council’s protection, community services and parks committee, deputy chief administrative officer Michael Jack says the City of Winnipeg can allow a safe consumption site to operate and also support its operations.

The site would only succeed, however, if it’s funded properly and located close to where people with addictions are using substances for non-medical purposes.

“There are currently relatively few legal barriers to the establishment of an SCS,” Jack writes, using the acronym for safe, or supervised, consumption sites. 

“While the province of Manitoba has not supported SCSs, there is also no specific provincial legislation that would create any greater impediment either.”

Manitoba is the only province west of Atlantic Canada without such a site, where people with addictions can obtain clean needles, have street drugs checked for the presence of harmful chemicals, get tested for communicable diseases and receive emergency medical treatment and basic medical care. The sites also typically provide access to mental health services, addictions treatment and social services, including housing.

Jack writes there are numerous benefits to supervised consumption sites, including the reduction of visible blights such as the consumption of drugs in public, as well as dangerous litter in the form of discarded needles.

The sites can reduce overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV, and connect people with addictions to social and medical services, he writes.

Proper funding essential: Jack

These sites work best, however, when they’re located within 500 metres of where people with addictions already dwell.

“Beyond that distance, the research seems to indicate that those using substances will choose their existing environments [and] locations, rather than travel to the facility,” Jack writes.

More importantly, he states the harm-reduction objectives of consumption sites are only met when they are funded properly and are operated “in alignment with a broader offering of services intended to support health and recovery.”

There is no provincial funding available for supervised consumption sites, he noted.

While Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has been cool to the idea of supporting supervised consumption sites, Premier Brian Pallister has not ruled out support for these facilities.

“Nothing works perfectly, so I wouldn’t want it to be taken as an absolute statement that there may not be some value from such sites,” Pallister said in January.

Jack says the sites are “often framed as encouraging and facilitating addiction” when in fact they can reduce addiction, provided they are paired “with wraparound supports and treatment options” and serve “as an entry point into a continuum of care and treatment.”

The City of Winnipeg, the report says, is not advised to operate these sites on its own. Rather, it can support these sites, which should be operated by a non-profit organization or government entity with addictions-treatment experience, Jack suggests.

The federal government would have to permit the creation of a supervised consumption site, with or without the province’s blessing, he adds.

Regardless, safe consumption sites already operate in some form, Jack states, noting “there are numerous public or semi-public restrooms in various locations,” such as coffee shops, where people use non-medical drugs.

“While the proprietor of such a business may not be condoning the use of substances, there is some minimal level of harm reduction occurring unintentionally, such as an attendant knocking on the door if it remains locked for an inordinate amount of time,” Jack states.

“The washroom itself is cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Hygiene products are monitored and restocked on a regular basis. Someone is nearby to alert EMS in the event an adverse outcome is discovered.”

Mayor Brian Bowman’s office deferred comment until Wednesday.

Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery Minister Audrey Gordon would not directly address the city report about supervised consumption sites.

“There are many important interventions for harm reduction, and the focus is on long-term solutions to keep Manitobans healthy and help them work towards recovery,” Gordon said in a statement.

“The province has and continues to make investments in a range of harm reduction strategies.”