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Harm reduction debate moves to public hearing

A bylaw prohibiting harm reduction services in Abbotsford will be reconsidered after council passed first reading of a bylaw amendment that would remove restrictions on the services.

The issue will now go to public hearing, likely at the Jan. 13 council meeting.

Mayor Bruce Banman said although council has listened to the public at forums earlier this year, it is now time to bring the issue to a formal hearing.

In 2005, council unanimously passed the controversial zoning bylaw prohibiting harm reduction services, including needle exchanges, mobile dispensing vans, safe injection sites and other similar uses.

But in 2010, the Fraser Health Authority (FHA) and the Hepatitis C Council of British Columbia called on the city to re-examine the bylaw. FHA estimates there are approximately 280 to 470 injection drug users in Abbotsford, many lacking access to health care. FHA also stated that Abbotsford has a hepatitis C infection rate of 64.4 per 100,000 people – higher than the regional, provincial and national averages.

Since 2010, the city has been reviewing its policies, holding public forums and conducting a technical review.

In April, council directed staff to prepare an amendment to the bylaw, and create a "good neighbour agreement" that would help mitigate the impact of harm reduction services. That includes how services will be provided, the hours and location, and efforts to deal with potential impacts such as disorder, criminal activity, complaints, amendments and enforcement.

At the request of the Abbotsford Police Department (APD), staff prepared a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between FHA, APD and the city to establish guidelines for implementing and reviewing an Abbotsford-based harm reduction program.

Currently, the city is facing a civil lawsuit and a human rights complaint from drug users in regard to the anti-harm reduction bylaws, stating the city has overstepped its jurisdiction by determining health care, as well as discriminating against drug users.

At the time the lawsuit was launched in May, Scott Bernstein, the lawyer representing drug users and the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors, expressed concern about allowing the issue to go to a public hearing, stating that a judge – not the public – should determine whether the bylaw should be repealed.

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