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Abbotsford moving ahead with harm-reduction plan

An addict uses the sign for the Portland Hotel Society’s mobile needle exchange program to block the wind as he tries to smoke a rock of crack in an alley in Abbotsford, B.C., on July 5, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The Fraser Health Authority will soon roll out its harm-reduction plan for Abbotsford after city council's unanimous decision to repeal a nearly decade-old bylaw prohibiting such measures.

The authority is expected to train service providers in the Fraser Valley municipality through March and open needle-exchange services at existing social-service and health-care facilities by late March or early April.

Before then, it will meet with the city and police as well as establish a committee that will help co-ordinate, implement and evaluate the initiative, said Marcus Lem, a medical health officer for Fraser Health.

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"The thing that makes a healthy community is having openness and respect for everybody," Dr. Lem said Tuesday, "and what [Abbotsford's decision] signals … is that the community, and the leadership in the community, is demonstrating this openness and respect for one of the most vulnerable portions of society."

Abbotsford city council voted late on Monday night to remove a nine-year-old provision in a zoning bylaw that prohibits harm-reduction services, such as sites that distribute clean needles to injection drug users. The Fraser Health Authority has long said the services are urgently needed to protect the area's roughly 500 intravenous drug users and curb the city's high rates of hepatitis C.

Under the Community Charter, there must be at least one day between the final reading and the adoption of a bylaw; the adoption will take place at the next council meeting on Feb. 3.

The city had mulled the issue for more than a year, recognizing it had a high hepatitis C infection rate and a large number of hospital admissions due to drug overdoses. In 2010, Abbotsford had an estimated hepatitis C rate of 65.5 per 100,000 among its non-incarcerated population, according to a harm-reduction service plan prepared by Fraser Health in 2012. Advocacy groups had taken it upon themselves to distribute clean needles to users.

The conclusion of a June 2012 council report regarding a technical review of the bylaw said, in part: "The approach of prohibiting harm reduction use in the Zoning Bylaw limits [Fraser Health Authority's] ability to respond to the situation effectively."

Mayor Bruce Banman said it became clear something needed to change.

"What we were doing really wasn't working very well," he said on Tuesday. "I think that council resigned themselves to the fact that we need to try and do something different. And ultimately, health decisions really do fall under the health authority."

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He noted there is also an economic benefit: "The hepatitis C medications cost as much as $75,000 per person per year. We all pay for that. So what are we costing taxpayers on the whole by continuing to go down the path that we were?"

The prohibition, in place since 2005, was the focus of a civil lawsuit filed by three drug users, represented by the Pivot Legal Society, who said it violated their Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person.

With the harm-reduction restrictions gone, Pivot lawyer Scott Bernstein said the legal cases may be unnecessary.

"My sense is that, since we weren't seeking any damages, now that the bylaw is gone we may be able to greatly reduce or eliminate the lawsuit and the human-rights complaint," he said.

Mr. Bernstein said drug users in Abbotsford will benefit from greater access to harm-reduction supplies.

"The real philosophy of harm reduction is that it's a doorway into access to health care to people that are very reluctant sometimes to get contact with doctors or nurses or social service people," he said.

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"It's a first point of contact."

Follow me on Twitter: @AndreaWoo

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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