An obstacle to a supervised drug consumption site in Nanaimo is being removed, as city council has voted to define supervised consumption as a health service.
At a meeting Monday night, Nanaimo city council passed a motion that will essentially remove the current requirement for supervised consumption sites to go through a public hearing process.
City staff’s recommendation was for council to retain decision-making power over supervised consumption site locations, but that motion was defeated on a 4-4 tie vote. A motion to start a process to alter a bylaw to make supervised consumption a health service then passed 5-3.
“Just proceeding as is, kicking the can down the line, isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Coun. Tyler Brown. “I’m not saying that this is going to solve the problem, but at least it’s trying to move forward in the right direction.”
Brown’s motion included a provision that the city work with Island Health to develop a policy around siting for supervised consumption sites.
Coun. Jim Turley supported the motion, saying the issue of addictions isn’t necessarily a city responsibility.
“At least, it’s not something we can deal with, and yet on the other hand, we’re turning around and we’re making it potentially difficult for the level of government who wants to actually deal with it,” he said.
“So I think we need to develop a level of trust with the other levels of government, let them do their job and let’s get this problem fixed,” Turley said.
Coun. Ben Geselbracht agreed, saying that “because of inaction we are withholding an essential service” that can help save lives.
In 2017, Island Health applied to the City of Nanaimo to re-zone the overdose prevention site on Wesley Street into a supervised consumptionsite, which allows for expanded health services and outreach. Community members at a public hearing at the time voiced overwhelming opposition, citing crime and antisocial behaviour, and the re-zoning bylaw was defeated.
Coun. Erin Hemmens – who voted in favour of the first motion Monday, and then when it failed, also voted in favour of the second motion – said the situation with Wesley Street has eroded trust.
“That’s a lot of faith … to say, we know it’s not going well down there and look, we’re going to do it again over here, and by the way, we don’t have extra resources to devote to it and we don’t know what that’s going to look like for our police force,” she said.
That was one of several concerns expressed by Coun. Sheryl Armstrong.
“We have to go back to almost 100,000 people and tell them why,” Armstrong said, addressing Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health’s chief medical officer for central Vancouver Island. “When they are dealing with what you say may be misconceptions, but when you hear from your chief of police that … crime did go up 200 per cent, who are they going to believe?”
Mayor Leonard Krog said the public expects an opportunity to be heard, and Coun. Ian Thorpe, too, argued for city council to retain “site-specific control” over supervised consumption applications.
“The citizens of this community need to trust this council to do what it can to protect their best interests – not one group of citizens who may suffer serious health challenges, but the safety of our communities,” Thorpe said.
The motion for council to retain decision-making around safe-consumption sites was defeated on a tie vote, with councillors Turley, Don Bonner, Brown and Geselbracht opposed. The motion to define supervised consumption as a health service passed with councillors Thorpe and Armstrong and Mayor Krog opposed. Coun. Zeni Maartman was absent.
Though supervised consumption will no longer have to go to public hearing, Health Canada will have an expectation that some form of community consultation takes place and that concerns are addressed, noted a city staff report.
Hasselback said it would be the health authority’s decision, not his decision personally, to now apply again for a supervised consumption site. He said even though overdose deaths might be slowing, supervised consumption is something Nanaimo will need over the long term.
“I’m hopeful and I will remain hopeful that we might actually get through this crisis,” he said. “What I’m not hopeful of is that we’re not going to have substance use problems afterwards that are going to need supervised consumption and ongoing services.”