The debate over harm reduction strategies, such as needle exchange and safe injection sites, and whether they promote drug use surfaced in council chambers last week.
Council listened to a presentation from AIDS Vancouver Island and the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) asking for support for safer crack use kits.
Dr. Charmaine Enns, Medical Health Officer with VIHA, said crack cocaine users are often neglected by society and are vulnerable to infectious disease.
“Crack smokers have a very high prevalence of blisters, cuts and sores on their lips and in their mouths from injury from the equipment they’re using to smoke crack,” she said. “They burn the linings of their lips and their mouth from hot glass or metal stems.”
Enns showed slides of what crack smokers are using to get their fix, from a modified pill bottle to a re-configured insulin vial.
“If someone is smoking crack, they will find any way that they can to smoke it,” she said. “If there is not a readily available stem and the brass screens … they will make what they can – a pop can, a broken bottle, whatever they need to smoke crack.”
The health authority plans to expand its harm reduction services at the Campbell River AIDS Vancouver Island office by distributing kits which promote safer crack use with instruments such as glass stems, brass filters and rubber mouthpieces.
The kits are already being circulated in major Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal. They’ve been distributed in Courtenay since December 2009, to the tune of 150 kits per month. They have also been distributed in Campbell River in the past.
They are expected to soon make the rounds in Campbell River again. Enns admitted VIHA did not need council’s support to distribute the kits but still wanted the city’s endorsement.
After listening to Enn’s presentation, most of council was convinced and voted to give the healthy authority written support of the safer crack use kits.
Coun. Ron Kerr was the lone councillor opposed.
“My concern is the message it sends to our more vulnerable demographic, the youth,” he said. “The perception is we’re condoning substance abuse by supplying the paraphernalia, rather than prevention. We’re putting our most vulnerable at risk.”
But Enns said the research is “very, very strong that harm reduction does not promote drug use.”
Sheena Campbell, harm reduction regional co-ordinator for VIHA, agreed there is very little evidence that programs such as safer crack use kits put communities at risk.
“Children are generally not in the same vicinity as people using drugs so there’s very little interaction between the two populations,” Sullivan said. “Most drug users I’ve come into contact with want nothing more than to become a good citizen.”
Enns added that harm reduction is aimed at the user.
“Harm reduction is the bridge to stay connected with people that otherwise would be disconnected, so that they can access treatment and hopefully go on to healthier lives… we can’t intervene in people’s lives when they’re dead.”
So we really need to work at doing the best thing for people so they can get well.”