Nanaimo looks to allow drug consumption sites

Nanaimo council is preparing to change zoning rules to permit supervised consumption sites, as all levels of government try to stem the opioid-overdose crisis.

If the zoning change is approved, it would mean any proposed supervised consumption service would not need to go through a public hearing. It would also mean Nanaimo would not be able to add conditions on how such a site would be operated, including how it would be managed, council heard from staff this week.

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The zoning change would bring Nanaimo in line with cities such as Victoria, Vancouver, Surrey and Kelowna, which define supervised drug consumption as a health service. In Victoria, a supervised-consumption site is permitted where zoning allows medical/ professional uses.

Nanaimo councillors wrestled with what to do after hearing that the federal government has jurisdiction to approve a supervised service. But federal legislation requires public consultation, said Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health medical health officer.

Hasselback, a longtime advocate for more services to tackle overdoses, told Nanaimo council: “Time has come to move to the modern age.” Supervised consumption is regarded as a health service that’s linked to specialized treatment and therapies, he said.

The issue of supervised consumption has been contentious in Nanaimo, where a proposal for a permanent site was defeated in a public hearing two years ago.

In a report to council, Nanaimo staff recommended requiring site-specific zoning for any supervised-consumption service. Council debated a motion that would require a public hearing and rezoning for every application. Mayor Leonard Krog favoured that approach. “The public expects their opportunity to be heard.” But the vote on the motion was a tie, which resulted in defeat.

Coun. Tyler Brown then recommended a motion to revise the definition of offices for medical and dental services to include supervised-consumption services, which meant each such service would not have to go to a public hearing and rezoning.

But Brown’s motion included location provisions requiring consultation with Island Health.

Before changing medical-dental zoning to include supervised drug consumption, citizens would have a chance to speak at a public hearing on the issue. They would have another opportunity to speak when any additional consultation is carried out for a specific site, under federal provisions, Brown said.

The motion passed five to three, with councillors Brown, Ben Geselbracht, Don Bonner, Erin Hemmens and Jim Turley in favour. Krog and councillors Sheryl Armstrong and Ian Thorpe were opposed. Coun. Zeni Maartman was absent.

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