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Abbotsford council takes next step to repeal bylaw against harm reduction

Jesse Wegenast of 5 and 2 Ministries speaks in favour of repealing the bylaw against harm reduction at a public forum on Monday.  - Alex Butler
Jesse Wegenast of 5 and 2 Ministries speaks in favour of repealing the bylaw against harm reduction at a public forum on Monday.
— image credit: Alex Butler

Abbotsford is on track to repeal its controversial bylaw against harm reduction measures, after approving the third reading of an amendment removing the prohibition on services such as needle exchanges.

The unanimous decision came following a public hearing on Monday, where views on the issue were mixed.

Gen Rottluff, who lives in Abbotsford’s downtown, was concerned about the effect a needle exchange could have on her neighbourhood, and where hazardous needle waste could end up. She advocated for other methods of helping drug users, not giving addicts the “tools of the trade.”

“I don’t want my neighbourhood to be the Downtown Eastside.”

But other community members spoke in support of removing the bylaw and the potentially positive impact on public health.

John Kuipers commended council for looking at the peer-reviewed evidence that shows harm reduction measures can reduce disease.

Jesse Wegenast, of 5 and 2 Ministries, said there was also a human element to overturning the bylaw, saying that needle exchanges allow service providers to connect with individuals using drugs, and that regular contact is a step toward getting people into treatment.

Marcus Lem, medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority (FHA), spoke at the hearing, saying they have good evidence that reversing the bylaw will lower blood diseases.

He said allowing needle exchanges will actually get needles off the streets.

The city has been reviewing the policy since 2010, when the Fraser Health Authority and Hepatitis C Council of British Columbia called on the city to re-examine the bylaw, citing Abbotsford’s higher than average hepatitis C rates.

The bylaw also includes a “good neighbour agreement” that would help mitigate the impact of harm reduction services, including how services would 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.

Mayor Bruce Banman said while something had to be done about the bylaw, one thing that is still missing is detox services, which he will encourage FHA to provide.

He said reversing the ban on harm reduction is “not perfect, but it’s a much better step than what we have.”

The changes still require a final consideration and adoption from council, slated for Feb. 3.

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