Abbotsford mayor is open to needle exchange

Bruce Banman said city council will review the bylaw that bans such facilities and other forms of harm reduction.

Abbotsford council will revisit its bylaw which bans needle exchanges.

Abbotsford council will revisit its bylaw which bans needle exchanges.

Abbotsford will re-examine its harm reduction policy.

Mayor Bruce Banman said he plans to review the bylaw, which bans needle exchange facilities and other forms of harm reduction from operating in the city –  despite the fact he hasn’t seen a new report issued by Fraser Health.

In the report, which was made public on Monday, Fraser Health indicates that a minimum of 500 intravenous drug users could be served in the Abbotsford area and a program would likely distribute about 120,000 needles per year.

“In my opinion, we should be looking at that (needle exchange) – under controlled circumstances, of course,” said Banman.

He said a needle exchange would reduce the public’s potential harm from discarded needles and help keep track of who is using.

It would also put users in regular contact with health professionals, hopefully encouraging them to ask for help, Banman said.

“I’ve never met an addict who likes being an addict.”

Banman said he is not happy that the Fraser Health report has yet to cross his desk.

“Everybody else in the world has a copy of this report but us (the city),” he said.

In the report, David Portesi, public health director for Fraser Health, suggests three possible sites for a needle exchange facility – West Railway Street near the Salvation Army, in the area near Peardonville Road and South Fraser Way, or in the Jubilee Park area.

The report also suggests the exchange sites could be fixed or mobile, depending on the need.

Coun. Henry Braun said he is open to a review of the bylaw.

“I always approach everything with an open mind. This may come as a surprise to some people, but I actually think we have to do something different than what we’ve been doing.”

Braun said if a needle exchange is a way to help people get off of drugs and in an environment where there are health care professionals, he’s open to the idea.

He is currently involved with an addiction recovery ministry and said the topic of addiction is “near and dear” to his heart.

Coun. Patricia Ross was a member of the council that created the bylaw and feels it’s unfair how some have characterized the city. She said council didn’t approve of needle exchanges or injection sites, but there were other forms of harm reduction that were not being implemented or offered.

“We were concerned that needle exchange was a Band-Aid,” she said.

“We were in this catch-22 where we were being told, ‘Well, you’re not going to get anything else until you put in needle exchange’ and we said, ‘Well, these are the ones that really work.’ ”

She used Chilliwack as an example of a community that was “enticed” to get a needle exchange and then didn’t get anything else. She said they had a detox centre, approved a needle exchange and then Fraser Health pulled the detox centre.

Ross said she is not opposed to a review but believes public input is also needed.

Coun. Simon Gibson was also on council in 2005 and said he has some serious concerns that changing the bylaw “could make our community a centre for drug treatment programs.”

“Harm reduction won’t make Abbotsford safer and it won’t encourage addicts to seek help to abandon their habit,” said Gibson.

He said rather than a needle exchange, Abbotsford needs a “well-funded detox clinic.”

The Fraser Health report also lists the latest drug-related health stats for the area, and indicates that 29 Abbotsford residents are admitted annually to hospital due to overdoses, resulting in a hospitalization rate above that of Surrey, Burnaby or the regional average.

“It’s our belief that the lack of harm reduction services plays a part in those elevated rates,” Portesi said.

Abbotsford is the only city in the region that has a bylaw blocking harm reduction services.

If Fraser Health succeeds in plugging its big harm reduction gap in Abbotsford, Portesi then plans to try to get clean needles distributed in area prisons to slow the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood or bacterial infections there.

“Many of the inmates who are released often do settle in the Fraser East region,” he added.

Between 2006 and 2010, New Westminster had the highest average number of per capita admissions to hospital for drug overdoses – 23.6 per 100,000 population – compared to 21.9 for Abbotsford, 17.3 for Surrey and 11.4 for Burnaby. The Fraser Health average was 16.9.

Death rates from overdoses in Abbotsford were 8.08 per 100,000 over a similar five-year period, compared to 9.01 in Surrey, 11.07 in New Westminster, 11.79 in Vancouver and 4.89 in Burnaby.

The hepatitis C infection rate in Abbotsford in 2010 was 64.4 cases per 100,000, compared to a B.C. average of 54.9 and a national average of 33.7.

– With files from Jeff Nagel