Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen last week released a long-awaited draft of a new "Vancouver Agreement" to deal with the city's intractable hard drug problem. If implemented as is, the plan would mark the most far-reaching drug reform yet tried in any North American city.

Drug overdose deaths have averaged 147 per year in the 1990s, and portions of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside host one of the hemisphere's most wide-open hard drug scenes, with all the attendant social ills, including thousands of drug users infected with HIV or Hepatitis C, rampant prostitution, and widespread fear of drug-related crime.

The draft was completed after months of input from stakeholders on all sides of the issue, from law enforcement and angry community and merchant associations to health care providers, harm reduction activists, and drug users themselves.

But the draft is open for further discussion and community review until early next year, and parts of the plan could change.

Some Vancouver drug users and harm reduction advocates are unwilling to wait and see. The Harm Reduction Action Society, which includes public health professionals and members of VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, trumped the mayor's proposals with its announcement that it is going ahead with plans to establish two pilot safe injection sites, where hard drug users can inject in clean surroundings without fear of police harassment.

The latest draft of the Vancouver Agreement, "A Framework for Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver" (http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/commsvcs/planning/dtes/VanAgree/frameworkforaction.pdf) adopts the four pillars -- prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction -- which support progressive drug reform efforts in European cities such as Geneva, Frankfurt, and Liverpool.

It names four goals:

The report lists 24 recommendations for action, many of which will be non-controversial, such as expanding treatment services, improving drug education, and starting police "drug action teams" to respond to neighborhood concerns.

Other recommendations, especially some harm reduction measures, would be North American firsts. Recommendations for services for people who continue to use drugs ("low threshold" services), for a task force to examine safe injection sites, and that the city participate in a North American study of prescribed heroin for intractable users implicitly accept that some people will use drugs.

Dean Wilson, a Harm Reduction Action Society board member who also belongs to VANDU, told DRCNet that Mayor Owens deserves congratulations for his political courage.

"He came out and did the right thing," said Wilson. "He put a lot of good ideas on the public agenda, and we will participate in the debate to come."

"Right now, we've got a three-pillar policy, with no harm reduction and one pillar, the police, being much taller than the others," Wilson noted.

Wilson approved of the safe injection study and the heroin maintenance study, and was optimistic that both programs would be implemented.

He has special reason to be optimistic about the opening of safe injection sites. His group has vowed to make it so by Valentine's Day.

They announced last week that they would open two sites without waiting for city policy. They have sought government funding -- so far unsuccessfully -- but say they will come up with private funding to open the sites in any case.

Harm Reduction Action Society board member Warren O'Briain told the Vancouver Sun, "They save lives otherwise lost to overdoses. We know that safe injection rooms help the most marginalized and at-risk drug users to get health care, counseling, and treatment. We are asking the three levels of government to step up to the plate."

Wilson was more adamant. "We will not tolerate another 400 people dying in this province," he vowed, "if it takes civil disobedience, it takes civil disobedience."

"We may wait until Easter to open if we are having fruitful discussions with the mayor," Wilson added, "but if things aren't going well by January, we will open a guerrilla site."

When questioned about whether he supported the group's safe injection sites, Mayor Owens first tried to evade the question, but then told the Vancouver Sun the plan was "premature and inappropriate."

In other comments leading to an inter-provincial tiff, Owens worried aloud that a safe injection site would attract drug users from across Canada, especially neighboring Alberta.

Wilson, however, suggests that the mayor would support safe injection sites. "I think the mayor is concerned about political exposure and about getting stuck with paying for it," he said.

No matter, said Wilson. "We're going to open them up, and I think everyone will get on board. We feel the city is more than ready to support them if they open. We don't want a standalone thing either, we'll have social workers and all that."

"The thing is, we know we can stop this overdose in the alley stuff, these at-risk behaviors, and we can save lives."

Even though Mayor Owen does not publicly support safe injection sites, another government entity involved has expressed cautious interest. The Vancouver/Richmond Health Board would consider contributing funding to a pilot program, the board's vice-president for community health services, Jack Altman, told the Sun.

"Certainly we would be interested in exploring this approach, but we're not going to get out in front," Altman said. "But if we sat down around a table and people said it may make sense, it might be a good pilot project for us."

The Vancouver police have not commented on how they would respond to safe injection sites.

-- END --
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Issue #162, 12/1/00 Supreme Court to Rule on Oakland Medical Marijuana Case, Medical Necessity Defense Against Federal Prosecution at Issue | New Jersey Releases Huge Cache of Racial Profiling Documents: Lots of Finger-Pointing, But Plenty of Blame to Go Around | Supreme Court Bans Random Drug Roadblocks | Implementing Proposition 36, California's Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act | Vancouver Mayor Unveils "Four Pillar" Drug Strategy: Impatient Activists Announce Safe Injection Project | Mexico: New Regime, New Attitude Toward Drug War? | Pharmaceutical Firms Fund Drug Court Lobbying Group | Newsbrief: Let's Get On the Hemp-Go-Round | Media Scan | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: On the Nation's Highways
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