Members of a panel of service providers that help Abbotsford addicts agreed to disagree around the benefits of needle exchange services at a harm reduction forum held Tuesday night.
The city of Abbotsford hosted the debate as part of a review of its anti-harm reduction bylaws that ban measures such as handing out condoms, needle exchange services, medical marijuana dispensaries and supervised injection sites.
Fraser Health has repeatedly urged the city to revise the bylaw to allow needle exchange services in the city, which it believes has high rates of new hepatitis C infections due to addicts re-using dirty needles or crack pipes.
More than 100 people, many waving placards in favour of harm reduction, packed into Matsqui Centennial Auditorium to hear the debate and public comments, which covered the full spectrum of opinion on the issue.
Community organizations on the panel included the Warm Zone - a centre serving at-risk women - as well as Kinghaven/Peardonville House treatment centres, the Salvation Army and the Life Recovery Association - a women's Christian recovery centre.
The Warm Zone and Kinghaven/Peardonville treatment centre representatives stated they favoured changing the city's bylaws to allow needle exchange services.
Members of the Salvation Army reserved judgment on the bylaw, but stated if needle exchange programs were taking place legally and overseen by medically trained staff it would refer clients to other organizations providing that service.
However, Life Recovery representatives opposed needle exchange services, arguing it enabled drug addicts to continue using.
Supporters of needle exchange services on the panel and in the audience stressed the bylaw was harmful to addicts' health and both abstinence and harm reduction should be presented as choices for drug users.
Warm Zone outreach worker and former addict Erica Thomson said in her experience harm reduction is necessary to keep drug users alive until they make it to recovery.
"When you are street entrenched it's hard to stay alive until you get into detox or treatment," she said.
"I practise abstinence . . . but harm reduction is part of my story. It kept me alive until I could get a life and I've got a good one today."
She noted while using illegal drugs she contracted Hep C and the cost for the health care system to treat the disease was around $77,000.
Milt Walker, executive director of Kinghaven/Peardonville, said the treatment facilities used methadone as a harm reduction measure and it was necessary to "meet addicts where they are at."
Tim Williams, board chair of Life Recovery, said the association employed a faith-based, 12-step abstinence-only approach to rehabilitation.
He pointed out that everyone on the panel had the best interests of the population they served at heart, but handing out needles to addicts was contrary to his own understanding of an "act of love."
There is no shortage of needles in Abbotsford, which are available at a low cost at pharmacies, said Williams.
However, harm reduction supporters noted going to pharmacies for needles prevented addicts from making contact with service providers, and did not solve the problems of the collection of dirty syringes.
Residents at the forum also raised public safety issues around the improper disposal of needles and condoms and the crime associated with drug addiction.
One father said he wasn't against harm reduction but the location of services had to be considered as he regularly found himself cleaning used condoms and dirty needles from his front yard.
Other residents questioned why Fraser Health wasn't spending money on more detox facilities in the community rather than pushing needle exchange services.
Barry Shantz, director of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors Fraser Health Region, not only criticized the bylaw, but the city's forum and review as well.
Calling the process a "fiasco", Shantz said that the forum failed to include members of the very population the harm reduction debate concerned most.
- A second public forum on harm reduction that features Fraser Health experts is set for Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. at Matsqui Centennial Auditorium, 32315 South Fraser Way, Abbotsford. For more information visit abbotsford.ca/home.