Bylaw against harm reduction doesn’t stop groups from helping vulnerable citizens

As council reconsiders bylaw against harm reduction measures, the provision of resources by groups continues

Mariner Janes reaches for supplies from the Portland Hotel Society's mobile needle exchange.

Mariner Janes reaches for supplies from the Portland Hotel Society's mobile needle exchange.

A woman wanders up to a black van, stopped in an alley off of Braun Avenue. Mariner Janes gets out and opens the door, revealing hundreds of needles and crack pipes. On top are alcohol swabs, bottles of water, tie-offs and more – the necessities of drug use, plus a few extras. He asks the woman what she needs.

“I’m not bad of a user,” she says, but will take some needles and alcohol swabs.

They talk for a few minutes – lighthearted chatter – as Janes gathers what she needs.

“Do you want a paper or plastic bag?” he asks her.

She smiles and says paper, watching as he fills it with supplies.

“They’ll think I’m carrying my lunch bag,” she laughs.

Janes rolls down the top of the bag, like a student’s lunch. “Be safe,” he says with a smile.

A group of people is gathered in the alley, next to the chain-link fences of a soon-to-be developed lot. Once Janes is recognized – and what he’s there for ­­– people begin to wander over.

He asks them if they need any pipes, screens, needles – ­anything they might need to inject heroin or smoke crack.

Janes pulls things from the back of the well-stocked van. Mostly they want pipes and needles, but Janes offers swabs, water, and everything else needed for safety. He offers crack-users mouthpieces, intended to prevent infection.

Janes ends every exchange with “be safe.”

Safety is the purpose of these transactions.

Though the exchange is not done overtly, it’s not intended to be hidden. Walking the line between public profile and anonymity is a constant balance for the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) and their work in Abbotsford.

PHS is a Vancouver-based organization that runs programs for the homeless, and provides harm reductions measures. The organization reached a high level of public awareness due to the InSite clean injection site, winning a Supreme Court battle to maintain a supervised needle exchange in the Downtown Eastside.

PHS comes to Abbotsford every Thursday to provide people with clean needles and other supplies for safe drug use. But in Abbotsford, these activities are still technically illegal. The city has a controversial 2005 zoning bylaw that prohibits harm reduction measures, including needle exchanges, from occurring in the city.

On April 22, council decided to review the bylaw. Staff will prepare an amendment to the bylaw for council to consider, changing the current definition of harm reduction. Staff will also prepare a “good neighbour policy” which would determine the most appropriate way to allow harm reductions measures in the city and mitigate the impact on the community.

Harm reduction refers to public health policies designed to reduce harmful consequences and is usually associated with needle exchange programs, free condoms, safe injection sites and other services that help drug users, prostitutes and other at-risk individuals.

Because PHS provides a number of these services, what they do in Abbotsford is technically breaking the law. But Janes says no one has tried to stop them. He said they come to Abbotsford to provide a practical solution to the problem.

“We don’t hope to make an impact on the politics, just to provide harm reduction measures.”

Janes says the issue has dragged on long enough and that in the time since the bylaw passed, the number of people who have been infected with HIV and hepatitis C is already too high.

On April 8, council received a report from the city’s social planner, recommending that council direct staff to amend the bylaw. The report found that the city is faced with high hepatitis C rates, high hospital admissions due to drug overdoses, and a lack of access to health care for vulnerable populations of intravenous drug users. The report states that health care is a provincial responsibility, and prohibiting harm reduction limits FHA ability to respond to the situation.

Though criticism of harm reduction often focuses on the fact it doesn’t stop drug use, Janes explains that what they do protects the addict, and when a relationship is established, then the conversation can touch on how to seek help.

PHS began doing runs into Abbotsford after people travelled to Vancouver asking for thousands of clean needles. When they explained that they needed so many because there were no resources available to them in Abbotsford, PHS decided to come to them.

On a recent trip to Abbotsford, Janes stops the van behind the Warm Zone, speaking with members of the 5 and 2 Ministries who are there doing similar work. Both of those organizations work with people struggling with addiction in Abbotsford, and have spoken out against the bylaw that restricts their ability to assist those in need.

Two public forums held in January were attended by about 150 members of the public. Representatives from local groups, the Warm Zone, 5 and 2 Ministries, Impact, the Drug War Survivors and the Abbotsford social development advisory committee, spoke in favour of overturning the bylaw. Of 95 written comments received at the forums, 85 per cent were in support of council amending the bylaw.

Council voted unanimously to reconsider the bylaw. City staff are reviewing the issue and are preparing a bylaw amendment. Any change in the zoning bylaw will require the issue to go to a public hearing.