SIMON NATTRASS: Police harass harm-reduction help

Victoria Police harass service providers.

Victoria Police harass service providers.

To read the press releases, policy reports and five-year plans that swirl around The Capital, you’d think that everyone around here is in favour of harm reduction. The Vancouver Island Health Authority, the Provincial government, even the City of Victoria have all signed off on countless reports extolling the benefits of needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and other essential health services.

For years, the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID) has distributed safer drug use supplies to people in the downtown core. Among other services, the peer-run organization offers counselling and removes discarded needles from high-traffic areas around town. It seems, to me, that anyone who supports harm reduction services would, by extension, support the organizations that provide those services — right? Wrong. Last week, an outreach worker with SOLID was stopped by Victoria Police for carrying drug paraphernalia — part of the job when you’re handing out supplies to drug users. Despite displaying a SOLID ID card and handing over a business card, the officer still checked the worker’s record for outstanding warrants. Minutes later, the same outreach worker was questioned by two officers while searching for used needles in a local park.

While this may seem like an honest misunderstanding, SOLID has recorded a total of six similar incidents since late last year. During three of those incidents, police immediately searched individuals  after they had received supplies from outreach workers. Other incidents involved officers following outreach workers along their routes.

“People are nervous to access harm reduction supplies in a visible way,” says Ashley Mollison, SOLID program coordinator.

The constant presence of police, says Mollison, means that drug users are less likely to engage with outreach workers for fear of being singled out. While Mollison has attempted to resolve tensions between her organization and the police through official channels, solutions have yet to materialize. In a letter to authorities, Mollison notes that police presence prevents drug users from accessing necessary health services, adding that “the result is individuals hiding out and moving outside the downtown core into surrounding neighbourhoods to find safer places to use.”

The brawn-over-brain approach of VicPD highlights the essential problem of harm reduction here in The Capital and beyond. Even with the support of service providers, governments and residents, all it takes to ensure the continued marginalization of drug users is the zealous enforcement of the War on Drugs. M

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