Harm reduction is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, the director of a Christian-based treatment agency told Abbotsford City Council at a Monday night public hearing. On the other hand, the medical community said harm reduction is scientifically supported and an integral part in reducing disease and protecting health.
Addicts, counsellors, a doctor and residents took turns at the mike to speak passionately about harm reduction, as the city plans to amend a zoning bylaw to ban future harm reduction programs and facilities that offer services to addicts.
Opinions could not have been more polarized.
"[Harm reduction] is a deception to the public. These methods are a bunch of smoke and mirrors" and don't have studies to back them, said Brian Pierson, the Langley director of Teen Challenge, a Christian-based treatment network that requires clients to abstain from prescribed methadone.
"This is a community of morality and integrity. When you bring this in it leads to community deterioration. Talk about property values dropping," Pierson said as he urged the council to make the amendment.
Banned facilities would include "needle exchanges, safe-injection sites, mobile dispensing vans, methadone treatment facilities and other types or similar uses," reads the amendment. An earlier reference to medical marijuana production and compassion clubs was dropped.
Public health officer Dr. Andrew Larder said the Fraser Health Authority has a harm reduction policy and supports such programs as "interventions of scientifically proven effectiveness."
The bylaw change could potentially impede delivery of a continuum of services designed to prevent disease and drive Abbotsford residents to go elsewhere for help, he said.
"It would be detrimental to the individuals affected and the community as a whole," he said.
Abbotsford residents already go to Fraser Valley Connection Services, a needle exchange in Chilliwack, said the agency's director, Sam Mohan.
"We have 1,400 registered clients and we're taking care of your sex trade workers - you need to take of them. You're going to kill too many people," she said.
Mohan said discarded needles are not a problem in Chilliwack, but she had a call from an Abbotsford city worker asking her what to do with the 3,200 needles they've found in parks and schools around the city.
"I said go drop them on Mayor Mary Reeves' desk," said Mohan.
Others charged the council to "bring God back into society."
Helmut Boehm, executive director of Wagner Hills, said his Christian-based treatment centre in Glen Valley no longer qualified for government grants after 2001 when it refused to accept clients on methadone.
"We felt it would be hypocritical to give people substances. We are on a mission to set them free, as Jesus directed us to," said Boehm.
However, Sean Spear, executive director of Impact, a youth outpatient treatment program funded by FHA, pleaded for the council to have an open mind, as "harm reduction practices and abstinence are part of the same treatment of continuum of care."
Spear said he's been "on both sides of the needle exchange counter, as a consumer and as a worker. I believe that I would not have lived . . . had it not been for the harm reduction interventions that saved my life."
Such services are first contact sites where addicts can get access to detox and treatment. Banning them would lead an increase in overdose deaths and HIV and hepatitis C rates, and further marginalize and demonize users in the community, he said.
Linda Noble, a member of the Abbotsford child and youth committee, suggested that council members get a clarification of the definition of harm reduction. She said that Abbotsford police, ICBC, public health, the Ministry of Children and Families and many other agencies have harm reduction "as a philosophical underpinning."
Mayor Mary Reeves said she and the council will consider the comments and may have a decision on May 30. As for meeting with the Fraser Health Authority, the council cannot receive new information after a public hearing is held.
"The public hearing is the last opportunity to speak on the topic," she said Wednesday.
2005 The Abbotsford Times