Despite a new willingness on city council to consider drug use harm reduction measures, it could be months before action is taken to address the controversial city bylaw that bans needle exchanges.
After lengthy debate Monday night, city council referred the subject back to staff for more information and a public consultation process.
One of five presentations discussing the pros and cons was made by David Portesi, public health director for Fraser Health and author of a report released last month that outlined how the agency could implement a needle exchange program here.
He suggests three possible sites for such a facility – West Railway Street near the Salvation Army; near Peardonville Road and South Fraser Way; or in the Jubilee Park area. The report also indicates that a minimum of 500 intravenous drug users could be served in the Abbotsford area. A program would distribute about 120,000 needles annually.
Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman, who has previously stated he believes harm reduction can work, was concerned the report did not include a detox centre for the city.
When Portesi said he could not address that, the mayor responded, “Fraser Health Authority needs to get its act together and there should be a representative here that could have answered that question. Because detox is part of it.
“To send this community through this kind of mess, without a detox, I’m not impressed.”
Banman also said there have been no discussions with any of the stakeholders in the surrounding areas of the proposed needle exchange sites.
Banman also asked why “good taxpayers” like his diabetic grandmother, have to wait in line at the pharmacy to pay for needles while others receive them for free.
“That just don’t sit right with me at all. And I don’t think it sits right with the public either. So if you are going to give out free needles to one section of the society, you better be prepared to do it to the rest. Fair is fair.”
Portesi took the criticism quietly, and agreed with some of the mayor’s points, but still stressed the importance of the exchange.
Coun. John Smith pointed out that Fraser Health has the ability to start a needle exchange program any time. He said the city bylaw governs zoning issues, preventing local groups from providing the harm reduction service. However, it cannot prevent the province from running a program.
Portesi agreed, saying he suspects “the bylaw may be in conflict with the health act,” but said Fraser Health has chosen not to proceed without the city’s support.
He added they do not want to create an “adversarial relationship” with the community because it “often leads to a lack of success.”
Smith said Fraser Health isn’t doing enough.
“Your spending a tiny fraction of your budget addressing this problem,” said Smith.
Portesi confirmed that only 2.8 per cent of Fraser Health’s budget goes to prevention programs.
He also said for every dollar spent on prevention, the medical system saves five dollars.