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Canada: In Harm Reduction Bid, Vancouver Police to Stay Away From Overdose Calls

In a bid to reduce drug overdose deaths, police in Vancouver will no longer show up along with paramedics at drug overdose calls. That has already been unofficial practice for the past two years, but at a June 14 meeting, the Vancouver Police board voted to make it part of the department's official policy.

Citing Australian research that showed a police presence actually increased the likelihood of overdose deaths, Vancouver police suggested that if drug users do not fear arrest, they will be less reluctant to contact authorities in the event of an overdose, and in December 2003 began staying away from ODs. After a series of consultation with community groups, including the drug user group Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the practice became established, if informal, policy by the end of the following year.

"Research presented at a Heroin Overdose Prevention Conference in Seattle in 2000 revealed that despite the fact that half of overdose cases are witnessed by another person, the greatest barrier in obtaining emergency medical help was the fear that police would attend and lay charges for drug use," wrote Vancouver Police Inspector Ken Frail at the time. "Rather than face police intervention, many witnesses to a drug overdose would respond in an inappropriate way. Sometimes a victim would be dropped in a public place hoping they would be found, sometimes an incomplete phone call would be made and the caller would leave before medical help arrived. Sometimes the overdose victim would be abandoned," he noted.

"Vancouver Police recognize that drug overdose cases are primarily medical emergencies requiring rapid response," Frail explained. "The new policy tends to restrict police attendance at overdose calls except in cases where public safety requires police attendance. The police role at a drug overdose call is clarified as 'assisting with life saving measures and public safety.'"

It worked for Vancouver in 2004 and 2005, and now the Police Board has made it official policy. It is a harm reduction measure American cities would do well to consider emulating.

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