Pubdate: Sat, 21 Jan 2017
Source: Expositor, The (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 Brantford Expositor
Author: Robin Baranyai
Page: 5


The tide is turning on harm reduction. The reins of a new national drug
strategy are squarely in the hands of Health Canada. There are positive
signs legislators are abandoning ideology for evidence-based policy, and
stonewalling for action. Last year, the opioid crisis claimed 916 lives in
B.C. alone.

The momentum for supervised injection sites builds on other initiatives,
including methadone treatment and a growing network of needle-exchange
programs, officially around since 1989.

Harm reduction measures help decrease health risks for drug users at all
stages of addiction and recovery. Measurable outcomes include reduced
transmission of HIV and hepatitis C through needle sharing, fewer overdose
deaths and greater access to addiction recovery supports.

The same positive health outcomes are mirrored in jurisdictions with
prison-based needle-exchange programs - but despite years of advocacy,
Canadian inmates don't have access to this health service. Yet it stands
to reason they would have an even greater impact in penitentiaries, where
the risks associated with IV drug use are much higher.

The statistics are laid out in Clean Switch: The Case for Prison Needle
and Syringe Programs in Canada, a 2009 policy paper funded by the Public
Health Agency of Canada. It estimated the prevalence of HIV in federal and
provincial prisons to be at least 10 times the reported incidence among
the broader population.

Hepatitis C prevalence was at least 20 times higher.

The report's authors, Sandra Chu and Richard Elliott of the Canadian
HIV/AIDS Legal Network, cite "significant evidence" prison needle and
syringe programs reduce the risk of transmission, among other health
benefits for prisoners. They also note needle exchanges "do not pose
health and safety risks to prisoners or prison staff, and do not increase
drug use."

These health outcomes are corroborated by the Office of the Correctional
Investigator, which has called for Correctional Service Canada ( CSC) to
implement more comprehensive harm reduction measures mirroring those
available in the community. Currently, inmates can access methadone
treatment and bleach to disinfect equipment, which is often improvised and

In 2012, Chu's organization and three other AIDS advocacy organizations
launched a constitutional challenge with former federal inmate Steven
Simons, who contracted hepatitis C from used injection equipment. The
lawsuit does not seek any financial settlement - its goal is to establish
needle-exchange programs in federal institutions. The application is
supported by medical organizations including the Canadian Public Health

Resolution seemed on the horizon, with the parties scheduled to begin
mediation next week. But the government abruptly withdrew from mediation
without explanation. "We were left scratching our heads," Chu said this

A spokesperson for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness commented:
"The minister has not yet made a decision on whether to participate in

Asked for clarification, CSC responded: "CSC is not closed to mediation,"
citing consultation with government partners on harm reduction measures
and other initiatives to reduce infection.

Chu says the challenge will move forward without delay. "We would like to
resolve this outside a lawsuit but we need to have a willing partner," she

Prisoners' health is public health. More than 90 per cent of inmates are
eventually released back to the community. Public Safety affirms:
"Prevention and treatment of infectious diseases ... protects not only the
federal offender population, but also correctional personnel and the
Canadian public."

The evidence is in. All we have to do is listen.
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