Drug-Users Sue City for Safety Services

     VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) – Drug-users in the Vancouver suburb of Abbotsford sued the city in a constitutional challenged to a bylaw that bans so-called “harm reduction services” such as needle exchanges and supervised injection sites.
     Lead plaintiff Douglas Smith and the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors sued the city in British Columbia Supreme Court.
     They claim that Abbotsford’s zoning bylaw defining “Harm Reduction Use” of city lands is unconstitutional.
     Hospital admissions for overdoses are higher than average in Abbotsford and much higher than neighboring municipalities that offer services such as methadone clinics and mobile clean needle dispensing vehicles, the plaintiffs say in the complaint. Abbotsford also has a higher rate of hepatitis C infection than other cities.
     The zoning bylaw, adopted in 2005 and amended in 2007, banned harm reduction services in commercial, residential and industrial zones in the mostly agricultural community, just over the border from Sumas, Wash.
     “Harm reduction measures, including the provision of sterile needles to people who inject drugs, are a proven, recognized and effective means to combat the spread of infection, save lives, promote public health, and integrate the ‘hardest to reach’ into medical services,” the complaint states. “Supervised injection (‘safe injection’), which is also prohibited by the Bylaw, has been proven effective in preventing the spread of deadly disease, preventing mortality from overdose of injection drugs, and in providing increased access to drug treatment facilities.”
     The regional health authority overseeing the city has not set up any of the services because of the bylaw, although it asked the city in 2010 to reconsider its position. Reviews and public consultation since then have not brought any amendments to the bylaw, and any change will requires City Council approval and more public hearings.
     “The individual plaintiffs are all residents of the City, currently drug users, and wish to access life-saving harm reduction measures. They are prohibited from accessing such services because these services are not readily available in their community,” the complaint states. “The Bylaw … puts the life and security of the individual plaintiffs and the public health in danger.”
     The B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors claims that many of its 300 members live in Abbotsford. A survey the association conducted in 2011 found that users believed the bylaw contributed to a “‘cycle of harm'” and should be struck from the books. The association is willing to spearhead a mobile needle exchange and distribution service, but claims the city and the regional health authority haven’t provided the resources to begin the service.
     “The Bylaw creates a climate of illegality around drug use and access to medically-proven interventions that reduce the spread of hepatitis C and HIV and reduce death from overdose, thereby depriving drug users of their liberty. The Bylaw forces drug users to inject drugs hurriedly and without adequate measures to improve their health and well-being,” the complaint states. “Depriving people who use drugs of the ability to take measures to save their lives and improve their health exposes them to additional health and safety risks. It also causes serious, state imposed stress, and interferes with their ability to make the basic and fundamental decision to take practical steps to protect themselves from harm.”
     The plaintiffs want the bylaw struck down, claiming it violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and exceeds the jurisdiction of the City. They are represented by Scott E. Bernstein with the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver.

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