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News (Media Awareness Project) - CN ON: Harm-Reduction Programs Threatened
Title:CN ON: Harm-Reduction Programs Threatened
Published On:2012-01-19
Source:Capital Xtra! (CN ON)
Fetched On:2012-01-23 06:03:49

HEALTH / Activists Say Federal Omnibus Bill Will Put Drug Users,
Prisoners at Greater Risk

Local advocates for successful harm-reduction programs are arguing
that the federal omnibus crime bill places drug users at a higher
risk of contracting diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

They say that Bill C-10, reintroduced last September by the
Conservative Party, has more consequences than simply being "tough on crime."

It's a "regressive piece of legislation," says Sandra Chu, senior
policy analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, noting that
infection rates are 10 times higher for HIV and 30 times higher for
hepatitis C in prisons.

The tough-on-crime bill is going to be tough on people who use
drugs," says Rob Boyd, director of the Oasis program at Sandy Hill
Community Health Centre. "We need to use a health approach to the
issue of addictions, rather than a criminal approach."

OASIS director Rob Boyd says the government needs to ditch its
criminal approach and focus on health and harm reduction.

Harm-reduction initiatives in Ottawa range from needle exchange
programs to distributing clean crack pipes.

Health centres like Oasis offer numerous services, including a
drop-in centre; health promotion events, such as movies about
drug-use; and workshops on diseases. Oasis also has a medical clinic
and an opiate substitution program, and staff members offer
counselling and other resources to promote good health.

The goal of these programs is to reduce the rates of diseases that
are common and easily spread by sharing needles or drug paraphernalia.

According to the city of Ottawa, HIV and hepatitis B and C infections
in Ottawa in the late 1980s were said to grow to "epidemic proportions."

A recent report by the Ottawa Integrated Drug and Addiction Strategy
(OIDAS) initiative found that rates of infection for HIV and
hepatitis C in the city are amongst the highest in Ontario. It noted
that Ottawa has the second highest HIV infection rate in the country,
after Vancouver.

It also found that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 people in Ottawa
who inject drugs; 70 percent of this group also smokes crack cocaine.

A follow-up report was proposed in order to encourage the
implementation of health programs, including harm-reduction initiatives.

There is evidence globally on the effectiveness of harm-reduction
programs," says Chu. "They have been proven to lower the risk
behaviours that are associated with HIV and hepatitis C transmission."

However, Chu says there is no equivalent healthcare available in prisons.

People who are getting incarcerated under mandatory minimum
sentencing for drug-related offences . . . don't have access to
things like needle exchange programs, or there's a waiting list for
treatment," Chu says. "If there's needle and syringe programs in the
community and we recognize their value, why are we denying them to
people in prison?"

The Conservative government argues that harm-reduction programs are a
safety concern. Representatives from the Conservative government
declined to be interviewed for this story.

Safer tattooing may be seen as coddling prisoners, or safer needle
and syringe programs might be used as weapons," Chu says.

Yet she says there are more than 60 prisons worldwide where these
programs do exist, and studies have shown there has not been a single
instance of a security threat.

Chu also notes there is no evidence that these programs encourage
drug use, while there is evidence that they raise the numbers of
people who seek treatment.

Harm-reduction programs are also under attack outside the criminal system.

In 2008, former mayor Larry O'Brien said needles should only be given
to drug users who are in treatment programs.

However, the Ontario Ministry of Health, under the Health Protection
and Promotion Act, said it would ensure that injection drug users
could access clean drug paraphernalia and counselling or other information,

Currently, the city offers a few services in an effort to provide and
collect resources like clean needles, including a mobile van and a
needle drop box program. This program collected approximately 258,654
needles in 2010.

The city also has a Needle Hunter Program, which allows for the safe
disposal of needles found in "priority neighbourhoods," including the
Byward Market, Centretown and Vanier. In 2010, this program collected
3,944 needles and 1,064 crack pipes.

On Jan 9, Project STEP (Support, Treatment, Education and Prevention)
reached its fundraising goal of $2.25 million to build a residential
drug treatment facility for youth.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy is a national advocacy organization
that promotes harm reduction programs for young people. Caleb
Chepesiuk, a member of the Ottawa chapter, says he became involved
with the organization after city council cancelled the crack pipe
exchange program.

Ottawa city staff collected 1,108 crack pipes in 2010, compared to 42 in 2006.

However, as of July 2007, Ottawa Public Health stopped distributing
sterile crack pipes or safer inhalation equipment. This means that
although the use of crack pipes went up significantly between 2006
and 2010, there is no longer access to clean equipment from the city.

Chepesiuk says attacks against harm-reduction programs have now been
heightened at the national level, and the Conservative government has
removed these programs from the National Drug Strategy.

They also spent about $600,000 in legal costs trying to shut Insite
down in Vancouver, which is absurd because they funded all this
research that showed it worked," Chepesiuk says. "Then they went
ahead and wasted all this money in legal costs losing the court case."

Ottawa Police Chief Vern White, who was recently appointed to the
Senate, has also spoken against harm-reduction programs, which
Chepesiuk says is a "big hurdle."

Advocating for more severe punishments for drug users will discourage
them from accessing healthcare services, says Chepesiuk.

Boyd says an accepting environment is key to combating drug use.

We need to do more work with people while they're actually using," he
says. "Someone may not be looking to stop, but they're looking for
something clean. This creates an environment where the stigma is
removed for the individual, where they can breathe and be themselves
and are more likely to look at the possibilities of change."

Chepesiuk says harm-reduction programs save lives and money,
lessening the strain on the healthcare system.

The OIDAS report states that "the financial cost for medications,
liver transplants, healthcare and lost productivity is enormous."

Most people that don't care about people," Chepesiuk says, "at least
care about money."
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