COLUMN: The costs of a harm reduction ban

Providing clean needles and crack pipes to addicts doesn’t “encourage” or “help” them to continue their habit...

COLUMN: The costs of a harm reduction ban

Some people are going to look at the front page story today, and the photo and online video that accompany it, and feel irritated, or angry.

You can almost hear it… “Drug users are suing the city? They’re concerned about their rights? They’re druggies, for crying out loud!”

The people who will feel that way may also be the same folks who say drug addicts shouldn’t be given clean needles. It only encourages them, you see.

And that’s the kind of thinking that has brought this lawsuit and a human rights complaint against the city.

In their wisdom (or lack thereof), the majority of civic representatives concluded in 2005 that by banning harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges and other health-related services for addicts, some moral high ground would be attained, along with discouraging an influx of substance abusers into the community.

They were misguided, and short-sighted, to say the least…

Providing clean needles and crack pipes to addicts doesn’t “encourage” or “help” them to continue their habit – just as leaving them to share needles or re-use dirty rigs doesn’t “discourage” them from drug abuse.

Someone who is in the steel grip of addiction, which has already torn away family, relationships, career, a home, self-respect, and eventually life itself, is not set on the road to recovery by the absence of clean needles.

It takes a great deal more than that to motivate someone to make the decision to become drug-free – and stay that way.

So why provide clean needles and pipes?

Well, if for no other reason than to save public funds.

Sharing drug paraphernalia is a fast-track to a host of health problems such as infection and disease, the most common being HIV and hepatitis C. We apparently have an unusually high rate of that in Abbotsford.

Connection? The Fraser Health Authority thinks so, requesting the city for the past several years to rethink its bylaw.

When drug addicts become ill, they go to the same hospitals the rest of us do. And we all pay for their medical care.

If you can’t stomach trying to keep these people safer on the grounds of social conscience and compassion, then justify it to save a buck, or free up a hospital bed. Feel better?

Ah, counter the naysayers, but what about all the druggies that are going to flock around if and when a needle exchange is established? Who wants all those down-and-outers congregating in one spot?

Just like they do at the Salvation Army, I suppose. And at other sites like the Warm Zone which offer support services.

Meanwhile, groups such as the Portland Hotel Society – a Vancouver-based organization – have been quietly providing some harm reductions measures in Abbotsford for years while officials looked the other way.

Banning harm reduction measures didn’t keep drug-dependent people out of Abbotsford. That ought to be painfully clear.

So what did it achieve?

Well, since 2005, a lot of drug users got sick. They filled up a lot of hospital beds. They cost a lot of money. And, if anyone cares, they suffered a lot.

Harm reduction doesn’t provide a clear path to recovery. That requires street outreach, and detox centres, and long-term shelter and support afterwards.

I think the mayor and members of council actually get that.

But harm reduction is one step in the right direction.

The city has met and talked and consulted enough. Stop wasting time and energy banning this basic health service, and put the effort into getting long-term infrastructure and programs in place to actually deal with addiction issues.

Do that, and the lawsuit goes away.

More importantly, so will some of the addicts.