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Abbotsford Scraps Contentious Ban on Needle Exchanges

Reversal of eight-year anti-harm reduction bylaw still 'a no to safe injection sites,' says mayor.

Rochelle Baker 14 Jan

Rochelle Baker is a long-time community journalist in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley with a particular interest in human rights and social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @RochelleBaker1.

Opponents to Abbotsford's controversial anti-harm reduction bylaw were wearily jubilant after city council unanimously amended it on Monday night and officially condoned needle exchange services in the city.

"It's been eight years. Eight long years," said Barry Shantz, of the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors. "We're worn out. It's been a long evening, but we're happy."

Abbotsford's 2005 land use bylaw prohibited any harm reduction measures to address the needs of illicit drug users such as needle exchange services, mobile dispensing units, the distribution of condoms and supervised injection sites.

Last May, the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society helped three drug users and the drug war survivors file a human rights complaint and launch a civil suit in B.C. Supreme Court against Abbotsford.

It alleged the bylaw violated Charter and human rights by preventing access to medical services and increasing the risk of the contraction of life-threatening diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

The complaint was accepted by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in July, and the two parties were scheduled for a settlement conference in mid-April, according to Pivot.

Pivot lawyer Scott Bernstein, representing the plaintiffs, was pleased with Monday's outcome.

"It's long overdue," he said. "It took a lot of work by the drug war survivors and a human rights complaint and a lawsuit for council to come to the right decision."

While the pending legal actions would be reviewed with the decision, they'd likely be dropped, said Bernstein.

"It's probably safe to say at this point the decision may make the lawsuit and human rights complaint moot."

While the path is now clear for setting up needle exchange programs with the city's blessing, the mayor and council still adamantly oppose safe injections sites (SIS), such as Vancouver's Insite facility in the Downtown Eastside.

Mayor calls for increased detox services

Scattered applause and cheers broke out in the auditorium after council came to the decision.

Abbotsford Mayor Banman noted a number of service providers are contravening the bylaw and already distributing needles within the community.

"Much of the public is unaware that there is a bit of a free-for-all going on... and there's no way of retrieving those needles in a safe and effective manner," he said.

A sanctioned needle exchange program will improve the collection of needles and public safety, he added.

Additionally, it would limit the burden on taxpayers by preventing the transmission of diseases such as hepatitis C, which can cost as much as $75,000 per person to treat.

The bylaw amendment will also alleviate the "human suffering" of drug users, he said.

Despite supporting the introduction of a needle exchange, the mayor reiterated he's not happy with the level of detox services being provided by the Fraser Health Authority in Abbotsford.

"There will be an increased need for detox [and access] has to happen within hours, not weeks."

The health authority has long pressed Abbotsford to revise the bylaw and set up a needle exchange to drive down the city's high hepatitis C infection rates, believed to be caused by addicts reusing tainted gear.

Abbotsford's hep C infection rate was 64.4 per 100,000 people in 2010 compared with a provincial rate of 54.9 and a national rate of 33.7 in 2009, according to Fraser Health data.

'We want to make this community safer': Fraser Health doc

Dr. Marcus Lem, medical health officer for Fraser Health East, said council's decision makes it easier for the health authority to actively provide harm reduction services, deemed the accepted standard of care in the province.

Beyond stemming disease, a needle exchange program will help link addicts to other health services and treatment programs, he said.

"We want to make this community safer and a more open and equitable place to live for some of its most vulnerable and disenfranchised residents by offering theses services, which will help reintegrate them into the community," said Lem.

Residents' concerns around the needle exchange program such as noise, criminal activity and public safety will be helped by a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Fraser Health, the city and Abbotsford police, he said.

Service providers will also have to agree to a "good neighbour" agreement before providing a needle exchange program.

Fraser Health plans to work with Abbotsford to address concerns regarding the level of detox programming within the community.

'It's a no to safe injection sites': mayor

The mayor said despite supporting a needle exchange program, council continues to draw the line at safe injections sites (SIS), such as the one established in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"It's a no to safe injection sites," said Banman. "But I don't believe [that's] part of the Fraser Health proposal."

Lem confirmed an SIS is "not in the cards" for Abbotsford, or any other community, given the Conservative government's hostility towards the harm reduction measure.

"It requires a licence from the federal government, and we don't think we'll see that anywhere in Canada in the foreseeable future," he said.

Following council's decision to endorse a needle exchange program, Shantz was cautious to declare an overall victory.

He accused the city of looking to "cleanse itself of undesirables" and said the situation is still a desperate one for drug users and the homeless in Abbotsford.

"There's no question that we see this as a win. But it's a small step in breaking the cycle of discrimination in this city."

The city and police have a history of criminalizing drug users and dispersing the homeless, he said

Pivot and the drug war survivors have a second human rights complaint in the works against Abbotsford after the city dumped chicken manure at a homeless camp in June in an effort drive residents from the site.

Bernstein said that particular complaint would proceed, along with a series of lawsuits in small claims court against Abbotsford police that allege officers slashed and pepper sprayed tents and belongings at other homeless sites.

The human rights complaint was launched in late November shortly before Abbotsford successfully obtained a court injunction to remove a homeless protest camp set up in a local park to draw attention to the issues of homelessness and drug addiction within the city.

Abbotsford city council will formally adopt the bylaw revision at its Feb. 3 meeting.  [Tyee]

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