Needle exchange facilities in Mission have been operating for years despite a district bylaw prohibiting the activity. Now, Mission council is considering lifting the five-year-old ban in order to support harm-reduction strategies and protect the community’s vulnerable drug users.
Drug overdose rates in Mission are two times higher than the provincial average, according to statistics from Fraser Health, and the medical health officer for the Fraser East region hopes to reach out and help more people by increasing needle exchange services.
The strategy was developed by Mission’s Healthy Community Council with input from numerous organizations, including Fraser House, Mission Friendship Centre, and the Women’s Resource Society of the Fraser Valley.
People don’t grow up wanting to be drug addicts, Dr. Marcus Lem explained.
“Everyone is a son or brother, sister or daughter to someone … We all have the same goals: We want a healthy, vibrant community, and part of that is to be inclusive, respectful and look after folks who need to be looked after.”
Providing clean needles to those who are suffering from addictions will decrease the transmission of blood-borne diseases and the rate of mortalities associated with addictions and overdoses, said Lem.
Currently, Fraser Health offers a needle exchange at the Mission Health Unit, and the Friendship Centre also operates a service with funding from the BC Centre for Disease and Control.
Pharmacies that fill methadone prescriptions or any other opioid substitution therapies available also have a supply of needles as regulated by the provincial health act.
Lem knows there are mobile vehicles coming into the community to provide the service as well, but noted Fraser Health doesn’t have control over these operations and he doesn’t know where they’re coming from.
Last year the health unit handed out 21,700 syringes, but that doesn’t represent the number of people using the service, said Lem, who explained people going in for a clean needle aren’t required to give their name or sign in.
“It’s hard to gauge the demand at this point because there are different groups operating in Mission,” explained Lem. “After the bylaw is repealed, we can work with our partner groups to standardize services, get more control over things and get firmer numbers to evaluate the situation.”
Most councillors supported the memorandum of understanding for managing harm-reduction distribution programs in Mission and were prepared to adopt the first two readings to amend the bylaw on July 21. Coun. Dave Hensman was the only one opposed to the actions.
“We need to get (users) off it, not prolong it,” said Hensman. “Harm reduction is a great term, but the longer a person is on drugs, the more damage they are doing to themselves and those around them.”
“If we just hand out needles, it perpetuates the problem,” added Coun. Tony Luck. “What are you doing to help get these people off drugs?”
There are programs and detox beds available in the Fraser Health region, but the purpose of harm reduction is to get people to access services, said Lem, who believes by reaching out, clients will know where to turn when they want to get clean.
Lem agreed dispensing needles through a mobile van isn’t ideal. He would like to see a peer distribution program established, where former drug addicts are trained and educated to help get others off drugs.
“(Peer distributors) know something we don’t know,” said Lem. “They know where their peers are and can communicate with them in a way we can’t.”
“There currently is needle exchange quietly taking place in this community,” said Mayor Ted Adlem. “From what I can gather, it’s fairly successful.”
According to a district staff report, there have not been any “obvious issues or complaints” related to the activity.
The report also noted that health services is regulated by the province and suggested the district’s bylaw could be found invalid if it was ever challenged.
The public can have their say at a public hearing on Aug. 5 on the proposed amendments to the zoning bylaw to allow methadone treatment clinics and related facilities, including, but not limited to, needle exchange programs for substance abuse and facilities, including mobile dispensing vans.