Abbotsford city council to consider amending bylaw that restricts harm-reduction services

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This evening (January 13) Abbotsford city councillors will hear arguments for and against an existing zoning bylaw that prevents the delivery of harm-reduction services.

In place since 2005, the regulation essentially prohibits programs such as needle exchanges and needle collection and disposal activities.

Scott Bernstein, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, told the Straight that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that amendments will proceed to a second reading after tonight’s public hearing.

“Council has been presented with other opportunities to get rid of this bylaw in the past and they haven’t done anything with it,” Bernstein said in a telephone interview. “But maybe the climate has changed a bit and now they’re ready for it.”

In 2010, the Fraser Health Authority and the Hepatitis C Council of British Columbia submitted letters to the City of Abbotsford requesting that councillors re-examine rules that restrict the implementation of harm-reduction programs. More recently, in May 2013, Pivot and the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors filed a lawsuit and human rights complaint against the city. They argued that the bylaw discriminates against drug users and infringes on their rights to access beneficial health services.

Bernstein called attention to an April 2012 Fraser Health Authority report that states that the hepatitis C transmission rate for Abbotsford is higher than the regional average, as is the percentage of drug overdoses that end in death.

Bernstein pointed to similar findings for British Columbia municipalities that have likewise limited harm-reduction activities. He said that areas of concern include Coquitlam, Mission, Nanaimo, and Surrey.

The Fraser Health Authority has estimated that if harm-reduction services were available in Abbotsford, they would serve approximately 500 individuals and distribute roughly 120,000 needles annually.

Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman was unavailable for an interview before deadline. In the past, Banman and other Abbotsford councillors have appeared reluctant to endorse harm-reduction strategies as a means of assisting with problems related to drug addiction.

Tonight’s public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Mastqui Centennial Auditorium (32315 South Fraser Way, Abbotsford).

After receiving input from the public, Abbotsford councillors will make a decision on whether to see bylaw amendments proceed to a second and then third reading, or defer a vote until February.

Update: Abbotsford council votes to do less harm

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