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Drug users in Abbotsford, B.C., sue over bylaw that bans clean needle exchange

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VANCOUVER - Three injection drug users filed a lawsuit Tuesday over an Abbotsford, B.C., bylaw that has banned harm-reduction services such as clean needle exchanges for the past eight years, arguing the prohibition violates their charter rights and needlessly puts them at risk.

The lawsuit comes as councillors in the Fraser Valley community study the future of the bylaw, which health officials say is preventing them from providing harm reduction services in an area with some of the province's highest rates of overdoses and infections of HIV and hepatitis C.

Scott Bernstein of Pivot Legal Society, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the trio, says council's work has dragged on for three years with no indication about when — or even if — the city will repeal the bylaw.

"From my clients' perspective, every day that this bylaw is on the books, it's putting their lives and their safety at risk," Bernstein said in an interview.

"Every indication is that this council is dragging its feet and not moving quickly. It sees no urgency in solving this."

The lawsuit involves Douglas Smith, Nadia Issel and Diana Knowles, who all live in Abbotsford and use injection drugs, according to their statement of claim. The B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors is also listed as a plaintiff.

In 2005, city council approved a zoning bylaw that bans needle exchanges and safe-injection sites within the city. The bylaw was passed amid the debate over the supervised-injection site in nearby Vancouver, which opened the previous year.

The city began reviewing the bylaw in 2010 and has since ordered a series of studies and public consultations.

In March, council directed city staff to prepare a draft bylaw that would remove the harm reduction ban, though it's not clear when it will return to council for debate or a vote. A public hearing on the issue is expected in the fall.

Community groups have been quietly contravening the bylaw for years, passing out clean needles, crack pipes and other supplies without any attempt by the city to shut them down, but the bylaw has stopped the local health authority from implementing a formal, publicly funded harm-reduction program.

The Fraser Health Authority presented a plan to the council last year that proposed phasing in a needle-exchange program over several years. The authority's proposal would begin with distributing harm reduction supplies through community organizations and would eventually include mobile and fixed-site needle-exchange services.

However, the health authority made it clear it cannot act with the bylaw still in place.

"If we're talking about other kinds of health care, like getting insulin for your diabetes or getting your broken leg set, we don't rely on people doing things in back alleys or doing them under the radar," said Bernstein.

"The bylaw has created a chilling climate, where the health authority can't deliver the most effective and cost-effective health care that it has identified that it needs to deliver."

The statement of claim alleges the bylaw violates several sections of the charter by increasing the risks to injection drug users and by discriminating against addicts. The lawsuit also argues the city doesn't have jurisdiction to pass bylaws that affect the delivery of health-care, which is a provincial responsibility.

Neither the city's mayor nor deputy mayor could be reached for comment.

Mayor Bruce Banman has previously said he supports removing the harm reduction ban, though he has insisted any attempt to introduce a needle-exchange program in his community must also include detox and treatment programs.

Banman has also said he is adamantly opposed to a supervised-injection site, such as the facility that operates in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The Fraser Health Authority has stressed it is not proposing such a site for Abbotsford.

Dr. Paul Van Buynder, the chief medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority, said in a statement Tuesday that he was optimistic the city would repeal its harm reduction ban.

"Fraser Health supports harm reduction to stop the spread of disease and is committed to working to expand access to harm reduction supplies and services," the statement said.

"We are very pleased with the progress the city has made to change the harm reduction bylaw and we continue to work with them to implement a phased in harm reduction service plan for the community."

Barry Shantz of the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors said he's tired of waiting for the city to remove the harm reduction ban on its own.

Shantz said he believes bylaw is rooted in fear.

"Their ignorance to what's really going on is based on beliefs — there's no scientific evidence to support anything they're saying," he said.

"They keep complaining that they don't have enough detox or treatment, and that's also true, but that doesn't undermine the fact that the bylaw is standing in the way and causing unnecessary harm."

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