Pivot Legal Society reveals how police can undermine harm-reduction efforts

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      Homeless people and marginalized drug users in B.C. face systemic persecution by police, a yearlong investigation by Pivot Legal Society makes clear.

      The report by the Vancouver nonprofit released Wednesday (December 5) describes “harassment, displacement, threats, racism, and violence at the hands of police and policing institutions”.

      “We found that participants share an extreme distrust of police, and are reluctant to call upon them when their safety is at risk or when they are a victim of a crime,” it reads.

      The 132-page document was authored by Pivot’s Darcie Bennett and D J Larkin. It relies on 76 interviews conducted in 10 communities across B.C. Titled Project Inclusion: Confronting Anti-Homeless & Anti-Substance User Stigma in British Columbia, it presents its findings in the context of the province’s overdose epidemic. This year, B.C. is on track for more than 1,500 illicit-drug overdose deaths, compared to an average of 204 during the years 2001 to 2010.

      In a telephone interview, Bennett said that too often police are at odds with health-authority programs deployed in response to the overdose crisis. She explained that to reduce overdose deaths, B.C. has relied on a harm-reduction approach, which includes needle-exchange services, overdose-prevention sites, drug-testing equipment, and other initiatives that allow people who are going to use drugs to do so in a way that is as safe as possible. Meanwhile, Bennett continued, police use a person’s involvement with those very programs—carrying a clean syringe, for example—as grounds for a search and justification for drug-law enforcement.

      “Police are taking people’s harm-reduction supplies or destroying harm-reduction supplies,” Bennett told the Georgia Straight. “So we have two systems operating: we have a provincial government that has invested in harm reduction and we have health authorities that are making sure supplies get to people…and then we have police in multiple jurisdictions where people told us they’ve had harm-reduction supplies seized, both new and used, or destroyed in front of them.”

      Pivot Legal Society

      Bennett suggested every taxpayer should be concerned about Pivot’s findings, regardless of whether they are directly affected by addiction.

      “It’s an inefficient use of money,” she said.

      Bennett recounted one drug user who shared her experience with a syringe exchange.

      “In the report, there is one woman who says, ‘Health hands them out and then the police take them away,’ ” Bennett said. “That’s a waste of money.”

      Another anecdote presents a similar story from the perspective of health-care providers.

      “Local health nurses must educate people who use drugs not only about effective harm-reduction practices but also how to avoid having supplies taken by police,” the report reads.

      Project Inclusion was drafted with support from the Provincial Health Services Authority. Pivot said the report does not name the 10 jurisdictions on which staff focused for fear that would reveal sources’ identities. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the B.C. RCMP did not make representatives available for interviews for this story.

      The VPD was likely the first police force in North America to officially adopt harm reduction as a component of its drug policy. “Harm reduction is necessary to support public health objectives such as reducing transmission rates of HIV and hepatitis, as well as preventing drug overdoses,” reads a VPD document dated September 2006.

      Pivot Legal Society's Darcie Bennett (above) and DJ Larkin wrote the report.
      Pivot Legal Society


      Bennett described how disconnects around authorities’ treatment of drug users can affect the larger community. “People don’t want to be found with harm-reduction supplies on them because of the general sort of criminalization around it,” she said. Bennett explained that someone who has used a syringe to inject drugs therefore might decide not to carry it to a designated disposal site and instead might throw the used needle on the ground. “There are some genuine community safety issues that come from this,” she added.

      Bennett suggested that problems are so systemic they require solutions from above the 10 police forces reviewed.

      “We have two philosophies that are working at cross-purposes,” she said. “We need a directive from the province that says, ‘Policing needs to come in line with the measures that we are taking as a province to support harm reduction.’ ”