No-go zones for people on bail creating tough choices for Vancouver drug offenders, study finds

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      Imagine you’re addicted to drugs, you just spent 72 hours in a Vancouver jail, and now you’re released on bail. What’s the first thing you do?

      Your physical dependence on opioids means that it’s likely you will go looking for drugs.

      You know that fentanyl and carfentanil are out there, so you want to use at Insite or one of the city’s new overdose-prevention sites. At this point, you realize you have a problem.

      One of the conditions of your release is that you stay out of the Downtown Eastside, the neighbourhood that you’ve previously relied on for clean needles and other harm-reduction services.

      So now you have a choice. You can visit Insite and use your drugs there, where there is someone to respond if you overdose but where you’ll be committing a crime by violating your bail conditions. Or you can use your drugs somewhere else, where you won’t risk new charges for breaking the conditions of your release but where you might die because there won’t be anybody there trained in overdose response.

      Such bail conditions are commonly referred to as “red zones”, where someone has been charged with an offence and not yet convicted but nevertheless is released with strict rules about where they are not allowed to travel.

      According to a study released today (October 31), red-zone situations like the hypothetical described above are extremely common in the real world.

      It states that 53 percent of bail orders issued for drug offences in B.C. adult criminal-court cases between 2005 and 2012 included a red zone. Moreover, of those bail orders, 92 percent referred to areas in the Downtown Eastside.

      The 84-page study was authored by researchers with Simon Fraser University, the University of Ottawa, and the University of Montreal. In a telephone interview, one of them, Nick Blomley, a Simon Fraser University professor of geography, said that in Vancouver red-zones often equate to a denial of social services.

      “People get red-zoned from a one-block, two-block, three-block zone of the Downtown Eastside or from a much larger zone,” he told the Straight. “What this means is, it becomes much harder for them to access important resources, which can include things like Insite….We’ve found people being excluded from safe-injection sites, making it harder for them to access clean needles, which then places them in greater risk of negative health outcomes.”

      A media release accompanying the paper places its findings in the context of B.C.’s ongoing epidemic of drug-overdose deaths.

      “Red zones are widely used against drug users, sex workers and the homeless in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, impacting their access to vital resources including access to food, shelter and harm-reduction services amid B.C.’s overdose crisis,” it reads.

      This year, it is projected that more than 1,500 people in B.C. will die of a drug overdose, up from 982 in 2016, 519 in 2015, and 369 the year before that.

      A new study describes how a majority of no-go bail conditions in B.C. pertain to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where the city happens to have concentrated the bulk of its social services for the poor and disabled.
      Nick Blomley

      “You can see how this becomes massively problematic for people who are already very vulnerable in all sorts of other ways as well,” Blomley said.

      In addition, the researchers found that red-zone bail conditions can create a “revolving door” effect that returns people to prison, often with increasing frequency as time goes on.

      “A revolving door is created when a person is picked up for, let’s say, a petty offence,” Blomley explained. “They are arrested, they are charged, and they are released on bail. They are yet to be found guilty of the offence which they were charged with, but that person then frequently breaches their conditions.

      “They’re picked up by the police, they’ve breached their conditions, and now they have actually committed an offence—an administration-of-justice offence,” he continued. “They are then perhaps released again but given more onerous conditions. And so people can get caught up in this cycle.”

      Travis Lupick is a staff reporter and the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.