01/13/2014 03:32 EST | Updated 03/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Abbotsford Anti-Harm-Reduction Bylaw Could Be Dismantled

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - Councillors in a Vancouver-area community where harm-reduction services are prohibited were set to consider a motion Monday evening to dismantle a controversial bylaw that has prompted complaints from health officials and a lawsuit from drug users.

Abbotsford, B.C., located southeast of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley, has had a zoning bylaw in place since 2005 that prohibits harm reduction services in all areas of the city.

Council has been considering whether to remove those restrictions for the past two years, after officials from the Fraser Health Authority warned the bylaw was preventing the agency from fighting communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

A motion that would remove any mention of harm reduction from the city's zoning bylaws passed first reading in December. It was scheduled for a public hearing, followed by second and third reading, on Monday evening.

Counc. John Smith, who seconded the motion on first reading last month, said whether the final vote actually happens on Monday would depend on the tone of the public hearing portion of the council meeting.

"I don't think there will be (a final vote) if there's opposition — I don't know what will happen, honestly," said Smith, who said he couldn't predict whether councillors would ultimately vote in favour of removing the harm-reduction ban.

"I'm going in with an open mind on this issue; I want to hear all sides."

Community groups have been quietly contravening the bylaw for years, passing out clean needles, crack pipes and other supplies, and the city has not taken any steps to stop them.

However, Fraser Health has insisted it cannot launch a formal needle-distribution program with the bylaw still in place.

The health authority's medical health officer, Marcus Lem, said the concerns about harm reduction aren't unique to Abbotsford, but he said services such as clean needle distribution have become the widely accepted standard when it comes to treating addiction.

"I think, by having a bylaw, it acts as an impediment to accessing (services)," Lem said in an interview Monday.

"Once the bylaw has been amended, we will be able to provide services in a form that's easier for folks to access. We'll be able to have more outreach, to have more health promotion activities, and we'll also be able to help them access other services, which will make them healthier, too."

Lem said he was confident the harm-reduction ban would be reversed.

Last year, a group of three drug users living in Abbotsford filed a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court, alleging the bylaw violates their charter rights because it prevents them from accessing services that could prevent overdoses and diseases such as hepatitis.

The city later filed a statement of defence, insisting the bylaw doesn't actually prevent Fraser Health from launching a needle exchange program.

The original bylaw was passed in 2005 amid the controversy surrounding Vancouver's supervised-injection site, known as Insite, though the Abbotsford bylaw included all forms of harm reduction and Fraser Health is not proposing a supervised-injection site.

The city launched a review of the bylaw in 2010 at the request of Fraser Health.

A municipal staff report presented to council in December recommends removing the harm reduction ban.

The report recommended the city enter into a memorandum of understanding with Fraser Health and Abbotsford police to implement a harm-reduction program. The report also said service providers should be required to sign so-called "good neighbour agreements" before setting up harm-reduction programming.

Abbotsford has struggled recently to deal with issues of poverty, homelessness and drug use in the community.

In December, the city went to court for an injunction to shut down a homeless camp that had been set up in a local parking lot.

And earlier last year, municipal officials apologized for dumping chicken manure on the grounds of a different camp in the city.

— By James Keller in Vancouver

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