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Used needles in a collection bucket at the AIDS Vancouver Island office along Johnson Street in Victoria, Nov. 25, 2010. (Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail/Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail)
Used needles in a collection bucket at the AIDS Vancouver Island office along Johnson Street in Victoria, Nov. 25, 2010. (Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail/Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail)

Victoria's Pandora Pharmacy stops needle distribution service Add to ...

The motto painted on the wall at the Pandora Pharmacy says, "Wellness is what we do."

But the small community pharmacy has stopped providing clean needles to addicts after a complaint from the Victoria Police Department.

Had the pharmacy broken any law? No. But the act of trying to help addicts stay well has shattered a fragile pact in the city's most troubled neighbourhood, pitting health officials against local residents, spurred on by police.

The 900 block of Pandora Street is Victoria's hot zone for street disorder, where drug users and street people congregate, drawn by community services such as the only daytime shelter for the homeless.

For the past two years, this part of town has been declared a "no-go zone" for community agencies that would like to provide clean needles to addicts. The neighbourhood association, which includes a preschool and music conservatory, has insisted it doesn't want any more services offered here.

But provincial health officials had other ideas.

A year ago, pharmacist Mike Forbes received a phone call from River Chandler, head of a provincial health project for harm reduction services. She asked him - and a number of other pharmacies - to take part in a pilot project aimed at reducing the spread of HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C among high-risk drug users.

Supplied by the BC Centre for Disease Control, the pharmacy has operated a needle distribution service for the past nine months. Some months, the pharmacy handed out as many as 6,000 new needles. And it collected more used needles than it handed out. In a city where thousands of needles simply disappear every month, the Pandora Pharmacy was reducing the number of dirty needles discarded in the city's alleys and alcoves.

But last week Mr. Forbes announced he would stop distributing needles, after Victoria police exposed the practice in a public report, stirring up a community backlash.

"One area of concern for VicPD is the erosion of a long-standing commitment from VIHA [Vancouver Island Health Authority]to create an exclusion zone in a two block radius around the 900 blk. Pandora where needles will not be distributed," stated the report to the Police Board.

The police were angry that they weren't consulted - in fact, it was months before they noticed what was going on.

"What's happened here has cut us, and the community, out of the equation," said Deputy Police Chief John Ducker, in an interview this week in a café two doors away from the Pandora Pharmacy.

"There is a misunderstanding put forward in this, that we have embarked on some kind of enforcement program. When in fact the only thing we have actually done is deliver a report to our police board highlighting this as a problem," he said. "We fully recognize there is no illegal activity in the distribution of needles."

Deputy Chief Ducker could not say that public disorder increased since the pharmacy started handing out needles. But he warned that slipping such services in without consultation will only increase the public backlash.

Across the street, two dozen street people milled about in the courtyard of the Our Place shelter. Since the shelter opened, "we've seen an exponential rise in public disorder issues like people affected by drug problems and fights," he said. "We felt that it isn't a prudent move to establish a needle exchange process right in the middle of all this."

Exposed by the police, Mr. Forbes unwittingly became the poster child for harm reduction - attracting an angry reaction from police and neighbours.

The Pandora Osteopathic & Sports Clinic shares the same block with the pharmacy. Owner Anthony Matthews has had his fill of cleaning dirty needles and human excrement from his doorways. "What we are talking about is a problem with the pharmacy giving out these bloody needles," said Dr. Matthews. "These VIHA doctors can say harm reduction is the best thing, but they don't live here. I'm saying, who at the end of the day are we protecting?"

Mr. Forbes declined interview requests. But VIHA's medical health officer Murray Fyfe said the Pandora Pharmacy was acting appropriately by co-operating with the pilot project.

"Pharmacies offer a broad range of services to their clients and providing clean needles is just a small part of that. They are legitimately providing it," Dr. Fyfe said.

He also denied the assertion from police that VIHA has agreed to ban services in the neighbourhood. "There isn't a specific no-go zone," he said.

In fact, VIHA is inviting some pharmacies to take part in its new "distributed model" for handing out clean needles. The model was announced a year ago, after the city failed to find a community willing to accept a new fixed needle exchange. But Dr. Fyfe noted the new model has so far been slow to actually distribute needles - "a few dozen or a few hundred at the most" in any given month.

Katrina Jensen, executive director of AIDS Vancouver Island, believes the Pandora community is doing more harm than good by trying to block services. When the old needle exchange closed down, her agency developed a mobile team to try to fill in the service gaps. But they have agreed not to hand out harm reduction supplies - condoms, needles and crack kits - in what is still known as the no-go zone.

That hasn't stopped addicts from using drugs in the neighbourhood, she noted.

"We walk them two blocks away to give them needles. We watch them turn around and go back into that same area," she said. So the needles are ending up there anyway, but now the one reliable collection depot is gone.

Victoria city Councillor Philippe Lucas is the community liaison for this part of town. He's also an addictions researcher who thinks the city is making a mistake by denying harm reduction services here.

"This is one of the biggest sites for injection drug use in the entire city of Victoria," he said. "What is there to gain for our community in denying them access to safe equipment?"

The result has been more health risk to users, and a bigger mess for the general public. "We're seeing increased needle sharing since the closure of the needle exchange," said Mr. Lucas. "There are a lot fewer clean needles going out, and even fewer dirty needles coming back in. There is no way to spin those numbers into a good-news story."

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