Views aired on harm reduction

Opinions differ at public hearing on needle exchange facilities

Harm reduction helped save Erica Thomson’s life. The people who reached out to her made her feel worthy and that she was not disposable. Methadone helped get her off drugs, and as long as she was on it, she was permitted to keep her daughter in her care.

Today, Thomson is drug-free and works as an outreach worker for the Women’s Resource Society of the Fraser Valley (WRSFV).

Katie, who didn’t provide her last name, is a recovering drug addict who cleaned up with abstinence and the 12-step program. She has a 13-year-old son with fetal alcohol syndrome to think about and no matter what, she doesn’t take up dope.

The ways a person can recover from addiction are as vast and personal as the opinions on how to become drug free.

Mission council heard varying viewpoints Monday during a public hearing on proposed amendments to a zoning bylaw to allow methadone treatment clinics and related facilities, including needle exchange programs, in the district.

A current bylaw prohibits needle exchange facilities in Mission, but council is considering lifting the five-year ban to support harm reduction strategies and to help protect the community’s vulnerable residents.

Mission’s director of planning, Mike Younie, noted the district has not received any application for a standalone treatment clinic, like methadone, and any such proposed business would have to go through a separate process and public hearing.

Needle exchange programs are not land use issues, said Younie, adding health services are regulated by the province and district bylaws cannot supersede a provincial act.

“It seems to me the most successful way for people to stop using drugs is to cut them off, not provide methadone, which is addictive,” said former Mission mayor and MLA Randy Hawes, whose own son recovered from addiction through a long-term supportive abstinence program.

“Methadone is funded by Pharmacare and doesn’t cost Fraser Health anything.”

Hawes said he couldn’t get funding for abstinence-based programs as an MLA, but encouraged Mission council to pressure the health authority to recognize and fund other modalities, including abstinence, in addition to harm reduction.

“I don’t disagree that for some, methadone is the right treatment, but for others, it’s not.”

Greg Blaine, an addiction counsellor at Harvest Discovery Home, told council to stay strong on the prohibition.

“I’m not against methadone, I’m against how it’s distributed,” said Blaine, explaining not all physicians are trained to treat addiction. “We’ve turned it into a money-making product. I’m not against clean needles, I’m against how it’s distributed.”

People don’t need to return old needles to get a new one and distributors don’t keep a log on who’s using the service, Blaine explained.

“Clean needles kill people too,” said Blaine. “Harm is harm.”

Katie suggested the district reach out to recovering addicts and ask what helped get them clean.

“Harm reduction is recommended to you from Fraser Health as a necessary health service,” said Dr. Victoria Lee, a medical health officer with Fraser Health. “The evidence is clear. It reduces the risk of contracting diseases like Hepatitis C, and links people to services.”

Fraser Health, Lee continued, supports all forms of harm reduction services, including detox and abstinence.

Intensive residential treatment beds in Abbotsford and Maple Ridge are abstinence-based, said Fraser Health spokesperson Erin Labbe, noting treatment plans are different from person to person and some people who enter the facility may not be ready to abstain.

“Harm reduction is how we work with people who are not ready to abstain,” said Labbe.

Drug overdose rates in Mission are two times higher than the provincial average, according to Fraser Health statistics.

“You need clean needles to reduce the risk to the public and the users,” added Lee, who suggested how the needles are disposed of can be another project for the Mission’s Health Community Council (MHCC).

Currently, Fraser Health offers a needle exchange at the Mission Health Unit, and the Mission Friendship Centre (MFC) also runs one with funding from the BC Centre for Disease and Control.

Pharmacies that fill methadone prescriptions or any other opioid substitution therapies also have a supply of needles as regulated by the provincial Health Act.

There are also mobile vehicles coming into the community to provide the service as well, but Fraser Health doesn’t have control over these operations.

MHCC developed the proposed harm reduction strategy with input from numerous organizations, including Fraser House, MFC and WRSFV.

Mission council will take a month to contemplate the information presented before considering approving third reading of the proposed bylaw amendment.

“I want more discussion about this while it’s on the burner,” said Coun. Tony Luck.

Mayor Ted Adlem and Coun. Larry Nundal opposed the delay.

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