Drug users represented in lawsuit against City of Abbotsford

Bylaw prohibiting harm reduction in Abbotsford has led to the filing of lawsuit and human rights complaint

Scott Bernstein

Scott Bernstein

Drug users are being represented in a lawsuit against the City of Abbotsford, which argues that the city has overstepped its authority by using a 2005 zoning bylaw to prohibit harm reduction measures in the community.

Harm reduction refers to public health policies designed to reduce harmful consequences of drug use 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.

Scott Bernstein, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, is representing three individuals who use drugs, and the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors, in the lawsuit against the city, which aims to repeal the bylaw. The drug war survivors group advocates for the rights of drug users.

Bernstein said the 2005 bylaw should not be allowed to stand, due to the fact that it is outside of the jurisdiction of the municipality to pass legislation that determines health care provision.

“It was mean-spirited, it was counter to public policy and counter to public health, and it is illegal.”

In April, city council received a report from the social planner, stating that Abbotsford is faced with high hepatitis C rates, high hospital admissions due to drug overdoses and a lack of access to additional health care services for vulnerable populations of drug users. Council decided to review the bylaw and sent the issue to city staff.

If the city decided to amend the bylaw, the issue would have to go to a public hearing.

Bernstein said that even though the city is reconsidering the bylaw, he is concerned that it would only be replaced with something else that infringes upon drug users’ rights. He is also concerned about allowing public input on what is a health care issue.

“Access to harm reduction should not be put up to a public vote … Let’s go to the courts, let’s ask a judge.”

Barry Shantz, who founded the Abbotsford chapter of the B.C./Yukon Drug War Survivors – an advocacy group representing existing and former drug users – said the lawsuit has been in the works for six years. He thanked the three individual plaintiffs – Douglas Smith, Nadia Issel and Diana Knowles – for their courage in becoming the face of the issue.

“We want to stand up for our rights; we want to help other people; we want to stop the spread of disease, and we want to treat people like human beings.”

He said they have long petitioned the city to overturn the bylaw with little result.

A spokesperson for the City of Abbotsford said that as of yet the city has not received notice of legal proceedings from Pivot Legal Society.

Mayor Bruce Banman was out of town and unavailable for comment.