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Stats confirm heroin program did not increase crime

VANCOUVER - The ‘free heroin’ addiction treatment centre which opened in the Downtown Eastside in 2005 did not cause any noticeable impact on neighbourhood crime rates, according to a just-published analysis of crime statistics.

“These results suggest that if you are going to put a prescription site in a neighbourhood -- with at least a hundred people who are going to be prescribed heroin -- you needn’t worry, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to suggest that that prescription site is going to have negative impacts on the neighbourhood,” said study co-author Neil Boyd.

The North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) is a research program to study whether daily prescription doses of injectable heroin or other opiates can be more effective than oral methadone for people trying to manage heroin addiction.

Clinics opened in Vancouver and Montreal in April and June 2005, respectively. Preliminary results of the program, released last October, indicated that it had a positive impact on participants’ health and on their own involvement in crime.

Boyd, a professor and Associate Director at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology, said the crime rate study was designed to examine secondary effects of the clinics.

“The research was initiated because there were concerns in the neighbourhood … that having a prescription site [would create] a kind of ‘honeypot effect’ where you would have more drug users and drug dealers in the neighbourhood because of the prescription site,” he said.

However, Boyd said that most people in the area did not need the statistical analysis to know that was not the case. Students working on the project have been canvassing the opinions of local residents and business owners about the project every six months.

“Those concerns arose all before the trial started,” said Boyd. “By two years in, people were not particularly concerned about it.”

The analysis showed there was no significant increase in either property and drug crime or acts of public disorder caused by opening the clinics in either Vancouver or Montreal, or by increases in the number of participants.

The study did show that acts of violent crime in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside increased while the clinic was open, but the researchers do not think this is connected to the clinic.

The researchers acknowledge that the number of people involved in the clinics was small relative to the neighbourhood population, and therefore the behaviour of those people was unlikely to make a significant difference in crime rates.

But in Boyd’s opinion, the important conclusion for anyone concerned about a similar project is that the clinics did not attract other people engaging in crime or drug use.

“If that [‘honeypot’ effect] didn’t materialize with 90 [participants], I’m not sure it’s too likely to materialize with a greater number of people.”

An interesting secondary conclusion of the study was that rates of crime reports were significantly affected by weather -- crime increased when it was warm and decreased when it rained.

The researchers included the affect of weather in the study so that seasonal affects would not confuse the analysis of the impact of the clinics. The weather trend was not unexpected, and is somewhat common-sense: in cold, wet weather, people don’t spend as much time outdoors, and so are less likely to commit property crime or public disorderliness.

But it is something to keep in mind when Vancouver is in the midst of an extended period of warm, dry weather.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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