The City of Abbotsford is facing a potential legal challenge to its anti-harm reduction bylaw on the basis it violates individuals' Charter rights.
The Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver is exploring a legal argument that asserts Abbotsford doesn't have the right to deny people access to medical services, said lawyer Scott Bernstein.
The 2005 Abbotsford bylaw bans harm reduction facilities such as needle exchanges or injection sites in all zones of the city. Life-saving health services, such as needle exchanges, should be accessible to everyone who uses illicit drugs regardless of what municipality they live in, said
"My sense is there's an issue when zoning bylaws attempt to regulate health care in a municipality," said Bernstein.
"[The city] is overstepping its boundaries. It is exercising improper authority by denying a certain type of health care to a certain class of people."
Pivot has yet to approach the city about the lawsuit, he said.
However, the legal society is also examining legal issues that prevent doctors from providing heroin-assisted therapy to people suffering from opiate addiction despite substantial research that shows the therapy is successful in reducing harms associated with such drug use among some patients.
Barry Shantz, of the Abbotsford chapter of the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, which has about 300 members, said it is backing Pivot's challenge.
"When it comes to the bylaw, we want no infringement on medical services by the city," said Shantz.
"We want experts, best practices and evidence-based applications.
"The mayor and city council has proven they have no knowledge about providing health services to a community," Shantz said.
Fraser Health has repeatedly communicated to the city about the need to establish harm reduction measures in Abbotsford.
The Fraser East region, which includes Abbotsford, has the third highest reported rate of hepatitis C incidence in B.C., according to Fraser Health's most current data.
Also, Abbotsford has a Hep C rate of 69.6 per 100,000 people, compared to Chilliwack with a rate of 67.6, and Surrey at 60.2.
The health authority supports some form of harm reduction in the neighbouring communities of Mission, Chilliwack, Surrey, Burnaby and New Westminster.
Shantz said the Drug War Survivors group hands out needles regardless of the bylaw.
Additionally, a mobile needle distribution unit run by the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver travels to Abbotsford weekly.
"I hand [needles] out at meetings and different members are doing peer-to-peer distribution," said Shantz.
"There isn't a bylaw officer or police officer that has the authority to enforce that bylaw."
A long-awaited review of the city's bylaws is expected to come before council this spring.
New Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman has expressed his support for some sort of needle exchange program to limit the spread of HIV/ AIDS and hepatitis C.
However, Coun. Simon Gibson, who was on council and supported the controversial bylaw when it was passed, has reservations about harm reduction measures.
Gibson said he worries Abbotsford could end up being a centre for drug treatment programs that support continued addiction without addressing the deeper problem.
"Needle exchange, safe injection sites and free-standing methadone clinics will perhaps be desirable for some addicts but without a full detox facility, they could almost certainly create an environment of social acceptance [for drug addiction]," said Gibson.
Harm reduction could act as a disincentive for addicts to seek treatment, he added.
"Harm reduction will do little to make Abbotsford a safer and more secure community. Addicts need the opportunity to abandon their habit and return to a normal life."
David Portesi, director of public health, said Fraser Health is working on a report for the city about injection drug use in Abbotsford and a framework for an effective harm reduction program in the community should the bylaw be repealed.
Fraser Health believes needle exchange centres are key to preventing the transmission of disease, he said.
"[The bylaw] drives clean needle distribution into the shadows, increases the value of used needles on the street and increases the risk of HIV and Hep C infection," he said.
"And at the same time, it reduces our ability to engage users in treatment discussions."
The health authority has no immediate plans to open a safe injection site anywhere in the Fraser Valley, said Portesi.
As part of the bylaw review process, the Drug War Survivors group submitted its own report after it raised concerns about the city's stakeholder review process.
Members of the group shared their experiences and how the bylaw contributed to the "cycle of harm" drug users were exposed to.
Shantz said the group's members were empowered by the consultation process.
"For me, the most important thing was the unity and enthusiasm it caused in the drug user population, and the opportunity they had to be part of the change required to improve their health," he said.