Abbotsford City Council Reviews Harm Reduction Bylaw

Yesterday, on May 28, Pivot appeared as a delegation before the Abbotsford City Council Executive Committee, adding ours to the chorus of voices that has been urging the City for years to repeal its anti-harm reduction zoning bylaw provisions. Pivot was one of a number of organisations who requested and were granted permission to make submissions at the meeting (agenda available on the Abbotsford City website).

At the meeting, Scott Bernstein, speaking on behalf of Pivot, made two arguments:  that the City’s blanket ban on harm reduction services violates the Charter rights of drug users and that the City does not in fact have the legal authority to pass bylaws that impinge on provincial health care policy (under these bylaws, even Fraser Health Authority (FHA), the provincially-regulated entity that oversees the provision of health services in the region, is prevented from providing harm reduction services in Abbotsford). Council wanted to know how the bylaw could have been on the books for as long as it has, if it was not legally sound. Scott responded that even laws of questionable legality are able to operate unless and until challenged. However, the bylaw’s chilling effect has scared off most service providers from operating in Abbotsford, thus foreclosing the kinds of factual conditions required to bring about a legal challenge to the bylaw.

Social Background

Right now, Abbotsford has the third highest rate of Hepatitis C infections in British Columbia, which itself has twice the country’s rate. Drug overdose hospitalizations also are higher in Abbotsford than in the rest of Fraser Health. Yet, as FHA has previously pointed out, by using zoning bylaws to ban everything from needle exchanges to injection sites to mobile vans from the city, the City is contributing to increased rates of illness and hospitalization in Abbotsford, as a lack of clean needles will not prevent drug use.

Indeed, the City’s Social Planner, Manager of Community Planning, and Director of Planning issued a report to the Executive Committee in May 2010 confirming that that “[t]he City’s harm reduction definition is not congruent with FHA harm reduction practices  and deflects FHA funding and programming away from Abbotsford that support harm  reduction approaches to health care. FHA has not considered funding any expansion of  harm reduction services into the Abbotsford area because it would contravene the  Zoning Bylaw. FHA does support harm reduction programs in the neighbouring communities of Chilliwack, Surrey, Burnaby, and New Westminster.” Their presentation to Council is available on the Abbotsford website, as is their longer report.

At the meeting, FHA Public Health Director David Portesi presented Council with FHA’s proposed plan for harm reduction services in Abbotsford. He noted that the bylaw’s current chilling effect operates in multiple ways. First, FHA will not attempt to force harm reduction services into resistant communities, as the efficacy of these programs relies on community support. Second, even if FHA, as a provincial entity, is exempt from the bylaw, it is unclear if their subcontractors will be too. He explained that FHA cannot be the sole entity dispensing harm reduction services; rather, it has to be able to work with local pharmacies and community organisations who have pre-existing relationships with clients. He proposed the creation of an Abbotsford Harm Reduction Community Advisory Board, which would involve the City. In their responses to his presentation, Council said they were troubled by the primary focus placed on harm reduction services, when what they wanted to see was more discussion about detox centres. Portesi stated that the two kinds of services should be working in concert with each other, as the one benefits users of the other.

However, the mistaken idea that harm reduction services and detox/treatment programs work in competition with each other is sadly pervasive. It was precisely this kind of needlessly oppositional rhetoric that Chuck Doucette and David Berner, from the anti-harm reduction group Drug Prevention Network of Canada, put forward at the meeting. Relying on characterisations of drug users as stupid, unproductive, and exploitative, they insisted that harm reduction programs lessen people’s dignity and that they undermine other vital health services, like diabetic care or detox programs. This false logic of mutual exclusion missed the point that many drug users, being whole people and not caricatures of desperation, also benefit from parallel health resources, such as detox programs and (to use their example) insulin.

The issue of the social stigmatisation of drug users was compelling addressed at the meeting by Brian Gross, who spoke on behalf of the Supporting Wellness and Reducing Harm Committee (SWaRH), a group of community organisations that has been distributing thousands of clean drug needles every night in Abbotsford since 2005. Gross has previously said that the bylaw sends a cruel message that Abbotsford “would rather see addicts dead than within the city.” At the meeting, Gross gave a beautiful and moving speech drawing parallels between the social stigmatisation of drug users to that of queer youth. He exhorted City Council to step away from black and white notions of right and wrong and “into the grey,” and to recognise that one of the primary uses of harm reduction programs like needle exchanges is that it gives drug users, who are often faced with intense social alienation, tangible proof that people do care about them.

PHS Community Services Society, which manages the InSite safe-injection site in Vancouver and which  runs a needle-exchange van, was also represented at the meeting. PHS has found that people were coming down from Abbotsford to Vancouver for its needle exchange programs. Accordingly, for the last six months, they have been operating in Abbotsford once a week, handing out as many 500 needles a night. Earlier this month, PHS made a business permit application last week to bring its van to Abbotsford. At yesterday’s meeting, Dan Small described PHS’ multipronged needle retrieval strategy, which has allowed PHS not only perfect retrieval rates on the millions of needles its hands out every year, but also the ability to collect needles they had not themselves distributed. Small also pointed out that police in Vancouver support PHS.

Political Background

Abbotsford’s zoning bylaw wasn’t always anti-harm reduction. The ban came into being in 2005, when City Council, then under the leadership of Mayor Mary Reeves, changed the City’s zoning bylaw to include the sections that now prohibit harm reduction. Reeves was of the opinion that needle exchanges would attract drug users to the city and then-councillor George Peary claimed that providing the public with clean needles would encourage “pathological behavior.”

However, reports have shown the opposite, with Chilliwack's Fraser Valley Connection Services, which has been dispensing clean needles for two decades, reporting that drugs users from Abbotsford are going there for clean needles. Moreover, while Chilliwack has almost no needles in its city parks, Abbotsford has had to ask FVCS for advice on how to dispose of more than 3,000 needles found in Abbotsford’s parks every year.

But change may very well be in the air. Abbotsford’s current Mayor, Dr. Bruce Banman, was elected in 2011 on a pledge to make Abbotsford more progressive. That he and the current council are heeding pressure from health authority, advocacy groups, and their own staff by opening this bylaw up to review is a positive sign. Banman himself has said he is open to potentially modifying the bylaw to allow for things like needle exchange programs.

And so the good fight continues. Pivot is honoured to join community and health organisations across the Lower Mainland in urging the City of Abbotsford to help stop the spread of infectious disease, decrease mortality rates, and combat the social stigmatisation of drug users by repealing its anti-harm reduction laws.