Unapproved Vancouver Safe Injection Site Gets Unwanted Police Attention 7/25/03

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Vancouver police are harassing the hemisphere's first safe injection site for hard drug users, according to site staff and Downtown Eastside activists. Police deny it. Police actually entered the premises of the unapproved site on Sunday night, but have been scaring potential clients away for the last three months by maintaining a presence near the site, said Megan Oleson, RN, in a statement Monday.

"On July 20 2003 at 1:24am, three police officers forced their way into the Safe Injection Site at 327 Carall St., questioning and detaining people accessing the drop-in area of the safe injection site," Oleson narrated. "The police officers attempted to access the injection room and were denied access by on-site volunteers, who demanded that the police present them with a warrant to search the premises. The officers involved -- badge numbers 3202, 1454 and 1886 -- had no warrant to enter the private premises and declared no reasonable cause to enter the safe injection site. Since April 7, 2003, those who access and volunteer at the safe injection site have been subject to police harassment on a nightly basis. Through search and detainment, police harass and intimidate people who frequent the site."

"We consider these allegations to be fabrications," responded Constable Sarah Bloor, spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department. "We had officers out there working patrol and they heard loud music coming form the site and they also saw a woman passed out on the couch," she told DRCNet. "They popped inside and said hello and no one answered. A woman came from the back and had a civil conversation. Then a man demanded to see a search warrant and was quite confrontational. The officers were not there more than two minutes, and just to address the loud music."

"That's utter bullshit," replied Dean Wilson of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (http://www.vandu.org), which is part of a Downtown Eastside coalition of advocacy groups that opened the safe injection site. "They've been doing systematic harassment, they park right outside for long periods with their police lights flashing," he told DRCNet. "They don't learn. The reason we opened the site in the first place was because they came and fucked with us," Wilson said.

Wilson was referring to the sudden deployment of dozens of officers beginning in April in an effort to disrupt the thriving hard drug scene centered on Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside. Although police had earlier vowed to use a light touch in the area until other elements of the city's much vaunted and long delayed Four Pillars (prevention, education, harm reduction, enforcement) strategy for dealing with the city's estimated 12,000 hard core drug users, they instead began saturating the area. Since then, Vancouver police have generated a steady drumbeat of civil and human rights complaints from organizations including the city's Pivot Legal Aid Society, which is filing 58 separate complaints, and Human Rights Watch, which has engaged in heated polemics over the issue with Mayor Larry Campbell, a strong supporter of the Four Pillars strategy.

The site opened when the police landed, Wilson said. "One night 50 cops show up, and our storefront just morphed into a safe injection site," he said. "Some of them really don't like it."

"They have this idea that we're supposed to be grateful they haven't shut us down," said Anne Livingston, VANDU program director. "But no, we're not grateful. They can't shut us down. We didn't ask their permission to open and we aren't asking their permission to stay open. So what we get is this systematic harassment."

"I do not believe our officers are harassing people," said Constable Bloor. "They conduct themselves in a professional manner. Officers in the area do street checks as part of routine patrol, and no one is prevented from accessing the site. We have zero enforcement."

Police may not be preventing anyone from accessing the site, but fear of police is, said Oleson. "Recent surveys have shown that periods of increased police activity at the safe injection site dramatically reduce the number of people accessing the site, dropping the amount of needles exchanged from 150 to fewer than five, while user visits plummeted from 35 to less than three," she said. And that's bad news both for the users and for Vancouver, said Oleson. "When users are discouraged from using a safe injection site, drug-related harm is increased, particularly an increased incidence of disease transmission, overdose death and street violence."

While Oleson is demanding an apology from the police department, according to Livingston, "all we really want is for the police to back off." It would be nice if they were "better informed" about harm reduction strategies, too, she added.

While some look to tensions to recede as the city's first government-sanctioned safe injection site prepares to open this September, that seems unlikely. "We're not going away," said Livingston. "There is a need to ensure that the new site is a user friendly place, and there is a need for more than one safe injection site in this city."

The Vancouver police, for their part, say they support the coming authorized safe injection site. "We continue to maintain that other forms of treatment are needed and we remind people that the safe injection site is only a research project, but the Vancouver Police Department wants a safe injection site," said Bloor. "We want to sit at the table and not interfere, we want to give it a chance."

Maybe someone should remind the officers on the Downtown Eastside beat that the department supports the notion and is practicing "zero enforcement" around the current, unsanctioned site.

Visit http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/285/vancouverinjectionsite.shtml for DRCNet's previous coverage of the Vancouver safe injection site effort.

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