Victoria city council urges action on needle exchange

Embraces harm reduction, but not willing to host facility

You can count on Geoff Young to counter the relatively comfortable consensus among Victoria city councillors on harm reduction.

For those following the issue since 2004, Thursday’s city council meeting unfolded predictably.

New councillor Marianne Alto joined her colleagues’ well-rehearsed chorus, urging the Vancouver Island Health Authority to take action. Her motion asked VIHA to create a working group with a mandate to open a fixed-site needle exchange facility, coupled with treatment options for patients and a solid Good Neighbour Agreement to minimize friction with nearby residents.

Before endorsing the needle exchange policy, most on council quibbled only the shades of grey. They debated the pros and cons of allowing food service at the needle exchange.

Coun. Philippe Lucas argued the city should be willing to host the service in one of its own buildings; council felt a needle exchange would be best suited to a provincially-owned building.

It was seven years ago that city council formally endorsed the principles of harm reduction. It’s an approach to service that seeks to minimize the adverse effects of substance use without pushing or requiring the user to conquer their addiction in order to get help.

The city’s “five pillars strategy,” which emphasizes the need for treatment, housing, enforcement and prevention in conjunction with harm reduction, hasn’t changed since then.

What has changed since 2004 is the closure of the fixed-site needle exchange on Cormorant Street, followed by an unsuccessful attempt by the health authority to open a new site on Princess Avenue.

At Thursday’s meeting, academic Bernie Pauly informed discussion with her latest report on Housing and Harm Reduction, prepared for the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.

“What’s different about our report … is we started with the essential foundation of housing as opposed to starting with issues around substance use,” Pauly said. “There’s considerable evidence … that provision of housing itself prevents the harms of substance use.”

Young, who’s not often one to vote with the pack or pull his punches, dismissed the claim.

“I’m never quite sure what is being presented because it’s the belief of the writer and what is being presented because it’s supposed to be factual,” said Young. “I don’t know if low-barrier philosophy works … I’d say the Cridge Park campground was a really great example of low-barrier housing … we found that it didn’t work.”

Others took exception to referencing Victoria’s former tent city as a useful example.

Pauly, with a controlled smile, addressed the attack on her research.

“It is very easy, when the evidence does not fit with one’s own personal opinion, to dismiss the evidence as lacking credibility,” she countered, adding her report is backed by current research.