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drug abuse

Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A contentious bylaw that forbids harm reduction measures such as needle exchange programs and supervised injection sites will soon return to council in British Columbia's "Bible Belt."

The Fraser Health Authority has long called for a harm reduction plan – and specifically a needle exchange program – in Abbotsford, insisting it is urgently needed to protect the area's roughly 500 intravenous drug users and curb the city's relatively high rates of hepatitis C. Two public forums held on the past two Tuesdays on the possibility of having a needle exchange program were well attended.

"We have to look at the evidence … and the evidence is it decreases the transmission of blood-borne infections like hepatitis C and HIV," said Marcus Lem, a medical health officer for Fraser Health who spoke at this week's forum. "I don't think, at all, it is any sort of incentive [to do drugs]; it's helping people who are at a vulnerable point in their lives and are engaged in activities they may not necessarily want to be doing. How we protect the most vulnerable portions of our population says a lot about how we are as a society."

He noted that harm reduction strategies are "pretty well accepted across the Lower Mainland – and around the world." The Pivot Legal Society has said the bylaw violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In 2010, Abbotsford had an estimated hepatitis C rate of 64.4 per 100,000 among its non-incarcerated population, according to a harm reduction service plan prepared by Fraser Health last year. The plan stated injection drug use "has been identified as a concern for the city of Abbotsford," although there is little data on its prevalence.

Crowds at the public forums were split on the matter, which is expected to return to council for a vote on whether to repeal it by spring.

The eight-year-old bylaw – which also bans medical marijuana dispensaries – is a controversial issue in the traditionally conservative Fraser Valley city. Some fear repealing it would condone illicit drug use; critics say keeping clean needles from intravenous drug users plays with their lives.

Such a divide was apparent at the public forums.

Council has also been divided on the matter. Councillor Simon Gibson, for example, supported the bylaw in 2005 and remained confident in his decision last year, telling The Canadian Press he felt harm reduction was "largely cosmetic."

"I'm satisfied with the bylaw, because it represents what is in the best interests of the overall social fabric of Abbotsford," Mr. Gibson said at the time.

George Peary opposed harm reduction as a councillor, but gradually came to speak of having an "open mind" on the matter toward the end of his mayoralty.

Mayor Bruce Banman, who edged out Mr. Peary in the November, 2011, election with a promise to make Abbotsford more progressive, supports harm reduction measures – but insists a needle exchange program must come with a detox plan.

"I would say that they take every single penny that they save [by preventing blood-borne diseases] and put it into detox and rehab," he said. "Give me the guarantee that when someone asks, they will get the help that they need."

He said what that help should look like would be up to the experts.

But Sherry Mumford, director of mental health and substance use at Fraser Health, who also presented at Tuesday's forum, pointed to options such as the Riverstone home/mobile detox and day-tox program and the Warm Zone drop-in facility for women, saying "absolutely" enough services are already available.