Harm reduction advocates vow to keep distributing needles if Abbotsford council maintains ban
Moments after parking in a central-Abbotsford alley, the Portland Hotel Society's mobile needle exchange van is quickly and quietly swarmed by half a dozen people.
Hushed conversations ensue as the group congregates around the vehicle's doors to gather clean syringes, needle filters, crack pipes, alcohol swabs or condoms.
There is no idle chatter.
As soon as the men and women have their supplies, they scatter and vanish into surrounding streets and parking lots as quickly as they appeared.
Chrissy, 57, is not as skittish and stops to have a quick chat.
A member of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, which advocates for the rights of drug users, Chrissy has loaded up with harm reduction supplies she plans to distribute to her peers both at meetings and in the city's 'shooting galleries'.
By distributing supplies, Chrissy, the Drug War Survivors and PHS are violating Abbotsford's 2005 bylaw banning any harm reduction measures to serve addicts within the city, such as needle exchanges or supervised injection sites. The city is reviewing the bylaw and a final report is scheduled to come before council on Monday, May 28.
Chrissy watches people flee down the alley and notes they're worried about being hassled by police.
She's unequivocal about what she thinks of a bylaw that treats addicts as if they are less than human and exposes them to the increased risk of disease and infection.
"It sucks," she says. "People are still taking water from puddles and using alcohol to try and clean up old syringes. It grosses me out."
Addicts who use dirty syringes or broken glass crack pipes are at greater risk of contracting hepatitis C, HIV and methicillin resistant staphylococcus aurous (MRSA), an antibiotic resistant bacterium responsible for a number of infections, said Chrissy, a former lab technologist.
Fraser Health, pointing to the city's high rates of hepatitis C transmission and hospital admissions for street drug overdoses, has also been pushing the city to establish harm reduction measures and recently submitted a needle exchange program plan.
The city can't continue to punish addicts who aren't prepared to get treatment, Chrissy says. "Not everybody is ready at the same point and time [to give up drugs] and you can't penalize someone just because they're not ready," she observes.
"Nobody has to drink out of a filthy glass at a bar just because they are alcoholics."
A crack user, Chrissy has been up for two days but she wanted a bunch of plastic containers she can use to safely collect people's dirty syringes. "There's no reason people should be poked with sharps," she notes.
"I might be high and flailing but I'm still respectable," she finishes with a laugh.
Mariner Janes, the coordinator of the PHS mobile exchange, said the Vancouver organization's van has been travelling to Abbotsford weekly since October 2011.
The PHS, which manages the Downtown Eastside's InSite, or supervised injection site, decided to drive out after people from Abbotsford came into Vancouver to obtain quantities of harm reduction supplies they couldn't get locally.
The organization has submitted an application to formally set up a needle exchange in Abbotsford.
They are not the only group resisting the city's bylaws.
The Supporting Wellness and Reducing Harm Committee (SWaRH) is a group of Abbotsford community organizations that to varying extents have been discreetly distributing needles since 2005.
Brian Gross, SWaRH chair, said the coalition will continue to better co-ordinate their harm reduction services to stem disease regardless of what Abbotsford council decides about the bylaw.
"Whether the bylaw is in place or not, Fraser Health has indicated there will be seed money to help with training and capacity building," said Gross.
The group includes Abbotsford Community Services, BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, the Women's Resource Society of the Fraser Valley, the 5 and 2 Ministries and Positive Living Fraser Valley Society.
Barry Shantz of the Abbotsford chapter of the Drug War Survivors hopes to establish a "revolutionary" peer-dominated distribution model that will be emulated around the world. Accountability would be built into the system to overcome the challenges of paying addicts to carry out a prescribed set of tasks, Shantz said.
Former or current drug users would be employed to possibly pack, distribute, collect needles from their peers and accompany outreach workers from other agencies.
Peer workers, who have their own experience with drug use, are the best candidates to build bridges with and educate other addicts about harm reduction practices and pertinent health services, said Shantz.
They are also the best source of information to address gaps in services and determine policy needs.
The goal is to pursue harm reduction but also ensure the city's most vulnerable populations feel cared about, valued and have a role to play in the community, added Gross.
"We need to stop looking [at drug users] through just one lens," he said.
"We are trying to focus on areas where they are dependable and can contribute."