Homeless in Vancouver: Abbotsford council votes to do less harm
For eight years the City of Abbotsford has dug in its heels and drawn the line against harm reduction services being offered within its city limits—services such as needle exchange programs, medical marijuana dispensaries, and safe injection sites such as Vancouver’s very successful, life-saving, Insite program.
The city appears to have changed its mind. According to a news release by the Pivot Legal Society, last night (January 13), Abbotsford City Council, following a public hearing, voted to remove the eight-year-old references to “harm reduction” in their zoning bylaw, references specifically included back in 2005 to prohibit harm-reduction services in any zone of the City of Abbotsford.
According to the bylaw, harm reduction use included:
- the growing, production, manufacture, sale, distribution and trade of drugs listed in Schedule 1 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, including cannabis marijuana, or any by-product of cannabis marijuana, or any substance held out to be cannabis marijuana;
- Methadone treatment clinics and dispensing facilities, except where administered by a Provincially registered pharmacist;
- Needle exchanges, mobile dispensing vans, safe injection sites, and any other similar uses.
Removing this language from the zoning bylaw now opens the way for lifesaving harm-reduction services to be legally offered within the city, such as the needle exchange program which the Fraser Health Authority previously proposed for Abbotsford in its Harm Reduction Service Plan of 2012.
That harm-reduction plan, which was pointedly predicated on the elimination of the bylaw restrictions, proposed a fixed-site and mobile needle exchange system—Harm Reduction Supplies Distribution Program (HRDSP)—including outreach services, designed in consultation with area stakeholders including drug users themselves.
Abbotsford residents were taking the law into their own hands
A CBC item on the bylaw amendment had Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman admitting the city’s hard line had led to vigilante action on behalf of harm reduction:
“There has been a sort of a wild, wild west going on out here. We have had a needle exchange of people dropping off clean needles, but there has been no pickup that has been coordinated by the Fraser Health Authority.”
The Fraser Health Authority’s proposed Abbotsford Harm Reduction Service Plan estimated in 2012 that a HRDSP would likely benefit a minimum of approximately 500 injection drug users living in the Abbotsford area and distribute about 120,000 needles annually.
Pivot’s press release says the bylaw restrictions are still the subject of a civil lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court and a complaint in the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, filed in May of 2013 by individual plaintiffs and the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors.
Pivot says the implications of the city council amendment for the ongoing legal proceedings are now being examined.
Scott Bernstein, the Pivot lawyer representing the plaintiffs before the B.C. Supreme Court and the Human Rights Tribunal, called the council’s move to remove the restrictive bylaw language a great victory and a step in the right direction. He also called on the Fraser Health Authority to implement harm-reduction services within Abbotsford.
Bernstein also called on other municipalities with anti-harm-reduction bylaws, such as Mission, Surrey, and Coquitlam, to follow Abbotsford’s lead and eliminate those restrictions.