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Court case over Abbotsford harm reduction clinics a battle between provincial and municipal authority

As of May 21, three drug users and the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, represented by lawyer Scott Bernstein of the Pivot Legal Society, launched a law suit and human rights complaint against the City of Abbotsford. At the core of the suit is a city bylaw amended in 2005 to ban harm reduction services, including needle exchanges.

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By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: June 5, 2013

Drug addiction is a harsh reality for many people, and it is a problem which is not hard to find in Abbotsford. It makes sense to provide a potentially life-saving service for drug-addicted citizens, one that ultimately lessens the load on our health care system to prevent disease and other health complications associated with the use of dirty needles.

As of May 21, three drug users and the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, represented by lawyer Scott Bernstein of the Pivot Legal Society, launched a law suit and human rights complaint against the City of Abbotsford. At the core of the suit is a city bylaw amended in 2005 to ban harm reduction services, including needle exchanges.

Bernstein told The Vancouver Sun that life-saving health services should be accessible to everyone, including those who use illicit drugs. The city, after public consultation, is apparently in the process of amending the bylaw and creating policy that will balance the concerns of the community and the health authority.

“I’ve said publicly all we have to do is reduce one case of AIDS and a couple cases of hepatitis C and this program pays for itself,” Mayor Bruce Banman told the CBC in January.

“The health authority has the right to deliver service regardless of the municipality’s position, which—more often than not—is informed by “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) community opinion,” Bernstein wrote in response to the city’s deliberations.

Services offered at needle exchanges also include brief intervention, nurse consultation, referral for injection drug users, basic health information, clean syringes and condoms, immunization, and disposal of used syringes, as listed on the Fraser Health website.

Health care is provincially regulated. To me, this means that it is not a city’s job to decide whether citizens have access to health services. It can certainly weigh in on where services might be offered and work in conjunction with the health authority to address the concerns of the community regarding public safety. It might even be able to evaluate, under the advisement of health professionals, how basic or extensive the available services should be based on how many people in the community need to access them. But outlawing a service completely seems like a big step over the line.

It makes me wonder where that line is actually drawn. Can Abbotsford decide to amend whichever provincial policies and services it pleases based on public opinion? Can it say, “There shalt be no more clinics within the city limits,” or would it aim to have anyone using a needle exchange arrested for using drugs?

If it is decided at a provincial level that needle exchanges are a service that needs to be accessible to all citizens via the health care system, is banning that service even enforceable? It seems to me that this is less a question of whether this service should be allowed and more an issue of Abbotsford needing to figure out what it is allowed to outlaw before it makes its bylaws.

The plaintiffs probably have a sound basis for a suit, but I would first ask some serious questions of Fraser Health. If it is true that the health authority is within its rights to offer services with or without the city’s say-so (as Bernstein says) then I don’t understand why the bylaw is such a large obstacle. No, it shouldn’t be in place, but why was this a service-stopping obstacle for Fraser Health?

It will be interesting to see how this case is resolved in the legal process to come, and how it may affect Abbotsford’s approach to creating policy around issues on which it disagrees with the higher powers that be.

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