Manitoba government signals new openness to safe consumption sites for drug users

The Manitoba government signalled a new openness to safe consumption sites for drug users Thursday and supported an opposition call for an official day to recognize the impact of drug overdoses on families and communities.

Sarah Guillemard, who was appointed minister of mental health in January, said she believes there can be a place for safe consumption sites as part of a larger strategy to combat addiction.

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“I think if they’re used in conjunction with strong core services, there can be a place for that — connecting those who are struggling with substance use with resources to help them to move away from the substances and more towards healing and healthy living,” Guillemard said.

“We need to consider strategies that have worked in other jurisdictions. There is nothing that is off the table.”

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Guillemard’s words are a departure from those of former premier Brian Pallister, who repeatedly said consumption sites would not be as effective as other measures.

Premier Heather Stefanson, who succeeded Pallister last fall, said in a CBC interview in December that such sites were not as effective as Manitoba’s walk-in addiction treatment clinics.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman has been calling on the province for years to examine the feasibility of a consumption site, and the Opposition New Democrats have been pushing for sites to be established.

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“I’ve gone to about four safe consumption sites in three different provinces … and 30 per cent of people that access those sites in the first year, they recover,” NDP mental health critic Bernadette Smith said.

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Guillemard was more committal on another idea pushed by the NDP on Thursday: an annual day to acknowledge the harm caused by addiction. Smith introduced a private member’s bill to establish the day, formally called the Drug-Related Death Bereavement Day, on the Sunday before Mother’s Day.

Private member’s bills can only be passed into law with government support and most fail to do so. But Guillemard said the Progressive Conservative government will support Smith’s bill.

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Smith said the day will raise public awareness about addiction, help families grieve and reduce the stigma surrounding addiction so that people might more easily ask for help.

The most recent data from the chief medical examiner’s office shows there were 407 drug-related deaths in Manitoba in 2021 — more than double the historical average of 200.

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The Public Health Agency of Canada has said there is evidence the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to rising numbers across the country.

Another New Democrat, Amanda Lathlin, told the legislature about her sister’s struggle with meth addiction and its impact on family members.

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“We haven’t seen her in a couple of years,” Lathlin said.

“I just received a couple of invoices to my mail regarding three paramedic pickups for my sister — three different addresses here in the city,” Lathlin said as her voice wavered.

Read more: Report suggests Winnipeg in need of a safe consumption site

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“Whenever I open up the newspaper, if there’s a body found in the river or anywhere, I always think it’s her and I hold her three daughters very tight to my heart.

“I really support this day of bereavement because maybe, one day, I’ll have to use that day.”

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