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Harm reduction ban lifted in Abbotsford

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - Councillors in Abbotsford, B.C., have voted to remove a nine-year-old bylaw that prevented the local health authority from distributing clean needles to drug users.

The vote, which happened at the end of city council meeting Monday that stretched late into the night, follows a year in which Abbotsford's approach to homelessness, poverty and drug addiction has faced scrutiny from public health officials and legal challenges from advocates.

The hearing dealt with a motion to remove a provision in the city's zoning bylaw that prohibits harm-reduction activities, including needle services, in the Fraser Valley city. A final vote will be held on Feb. 3, but that is expected to be largely a formality.

The original bylaw was passed in 2005, but the Fraser Health Authority has been pushing Abbotsford councillors to reconsider it for several years, pointing to higher-than-average rates of hepatitis and HIV.

Mayor Bruce Banman said he believes council has struck the right balance between providing services to drug users while limiting the potential impact on residents. The city will introduced a so-called "good neighbour agreement" that service providers must sign before offering harm-reduction services.

"One of our key goals was to ensure that any proposed changes were actually in the best interests of our community," Banman said in an interview Tuesday.

"We needed something that actually fit our community and ensure that good partnerships were established."

The motion also directs the city to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Fraser Health and Abbotsford police to guide the expansion of harm reduction services.

Several groups have been quietly contravening the bylaw for years, passing out supplies such as needles and crack pipes, without any interference from the city.

However, Fraser Health has said the harm-reduction ban was preventing it from offering its own services or using its resources to help service providers.

Medical health officer, Dr. Marcus Lem, said the council vote clears the way for the agency to put its harm-reduction plan in place.

"Now the work begins," said Lem.

The current plan relies on existing service provides who already have relationships with drug users and the broader community, he said.

Lem said the health authority will hold harm-reduction training sessions for service providers in March to ensure anyone handing out supplies is following the same procedures and policies.

"We also want to ensure that everybody knows how to access addition treatment services, so that folks who are ready to get off drugs are able to access those services as easily as possible," Lem said.

The harm reduction bylaw was passed in 2005, as the councillors of the day expressed concerns about the drug problems of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside migrating into their community.

Last year, three drug users, with the help of Pivot Legal Society, filed both a civil lawsuit and a human rights complaint against the city, claiming the bylaw violated their charter rights.

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.

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.

"It's a first point of contact."

The vote was not unanimous, though the mayor wasn't sure what the final vote tally was.

The harm reduction ban was among several issues related to poverty and drug addiction that Abbotsford has struggled with recently.

Last month, the city went to court for an injunction to shut down a homeless camp that had been set up in a local parking lot.

And earlier in 2013, municipal officials apologized for dumping chicken manure on the grounds of a different camp in the city. A separate lawsuit has also been filed over that incident.

Abbotsford isn't the only municipality in B.C. with restrictions on harm reduction services.

In the District of Mission, located a short drive north of Abbotsford across the Fraser River, the local zoning bylaws also prevents methadone clinics and needle exchanges, including mobile dispensing vans.

Mission's mayor, Ted Adlem, said groups are already distributing clean needles in his community. Adlem said he would like Mission to follow Abbotsford's lead by eliminating its zoning restrictions, though he wasn't sure when that would happen.

"I say kudos to Abbotsford for what they're doing," Adlem said in an interview Tuesday.

— By James Keller in Vancouver

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