Pubdate: Fri, 07 Jun 2002
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2002 The Vancouver Sun
Author: Frances Bula


Health and city officials are scrambling to get a street-operated Downtown 
Eastside needle exchange for drug addicts back on track after police raided 
the operation, seized a tent and tables that they said didn't have the 
necessary city permits, and claimed that volunteers at the booth were 
engaged in criminal activity.

"We're trying to see if we can reach a compromise so we can continue to 
have the needle-exchange operation," said Tara Wilson, a spokeswoman for 
the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

Several health officials, including provincial medical health officer Perry 
Kendall and the authority's medical health officer, Dr. John Blatherwick, 
made presentations to the Vancouver police board Thursday about the health 
benefits of the needle exchange, which is the only one that operates at 
night in the city. It distributes about 1,200 needles each night from 8 
p.m. to 6 a.m.

Health studies have indicated that lack of accessibility to needles is the 
major cause of needle-sharing among drug addicts, a practice that is 
directly linked to the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Wilson 
said the health authority doesn't want to interfere in police work, but it 
wants to find a way to separate their pursuit of criminal activities from 
the needle ex change's operations.

City deputy licence inspector Barb Windsor said Friday the city is trying 
to work something out with police so that at least the tent and tables can 
be returned on an interim basis.

The exchange, which is staffed by volunteer members of the Vancouver Area 
Network of Drug Users under the auspices of the health authority, has 
operated for the last two years under an informal agreement between the 
city, health authorities and the police.

Windsor said the city had no problem with the tables and tent, since they 
were clearly part of the drug strategy that the city is supporting. But now 
that police have made an issue of it, the health authority will have to go 
through a development-permit process that will take several months to complete.

In the meantime, officials from the Vancouver police department are 
insisting that the department has no problem with the needle exchange 
itself, or the city's "four-pillar" drug strategy, which includes an 
emphasis on harm-reduction initiatives aimed at trying to improve addicts' 

"We absolutely support the concept of the needle-exchange program and other 
health initiatives," said Detective Scott Driemel. He said the issue of 
possible criminal activity by volunteers at the table is still under 
investigation, but no one has been charged.

Police officers had conducted undercover surveillance at the table last 
Friday, which operates in the middle of Vancouver's notorious open drug 
market at Main and Hastings, where up to 200 people often mill about, 
buying and selling drugs. They said they observed one volunteer smoking 
crack, one steering the undercover officer to a dealer, and both warning 
people if uniformed police were in the area. They then brought in eight 
officers and a paddy wagon to shut down the exchange, confiscating the 
tent, tables and chairs.

But Dean Wilson, president of the drug users association, said the police 
just seem to be engaged in petty harassment of the exchange because they 
are frustrated with drug dealing on the corner and their inability to stop it.

"If anyone did anything, then charge us," Wilson said. "I think they're 
just trying to stop us from operating."

Wilson said it's far-fetched to think that anyone at Main and Hastings 
would need to be "steered" to a dealer, as police say one volunteer did, 
when there are usually at least a dozen dealers milling around on the 
corner, calling out "up," "down," "rock" and other street names for heroin 
and crack.

He said the volunteer accused of smoking crack didn't smoke it at the 
table, but went around the corner on a break to smoke.

Wilson said the needle exchange is continuing to operate.

"We're just doing walkabouts for now."

There appears to be little slowdown in business. The volunteers, carrying 
around the needles in backpacks, distributed 1,100 between Thursday night 
and Friday morning, he said.

The police raid ruptured a fragile working arrangement among police, social 
agencies and government that is aimed at trying to reduce health problems 
and crime created by the intense concentration of drug dealing and 
addiction in the area.

Police Inspector Ken Frail, who oversees operations in the Downtown 
Eastside, said after the raid that police were concerned about criminal 
activity at the needle-exchange tent. But he also expressed personal doubts 
about the effectiveness of a needle exchange run by addicts.
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