‘Dark ages thinking’ on harm reduction

While he was deputy chief of the Ottawa Police Service, Larry Hill fought for a harm reduction program for crack addicts – a crack pipe program – calling the prevailing view among police chiefs at the time “dark ages thinking” on harm reduction.

It seems that little has changed. Within hours of the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling last week that Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection site, could remain open, Ottawa Police Chief Vern White was trying to quash any expectations that Ottawa may soon follow Vancouver’s example. White quickly opposed the idea, being floated by a prominent local doctor, of a safe injection site opening in Ottawa, saying such a facility would have an “extreme negative impact” on local residents. Mayor Jim Watson also opposed the idea.

Hill, in an email said one reason he supported the program was that it attempted to control the spread of disease, which protected police, firefighters and paramedics. He wrote this about the issue:

“Sometime in 2004, I was contacted by one of my superintendents about a new program that the Ottawa Medical Officer of Health was planning on introducing. He explained that the crack pipe kit program was one way of mitigating the spread of disease among habitual drug users. He said that his officer who was at the meeting did not agree with the new program and my superintendent was conflicted. I told him that I would support any program that at least attempted to address the spread of disease. I explained that in my mind the first responders are the people who most at risk of contracting disease from that segment of our community. Therefore I saw it as a way of potentially protecting our officers, paramedics, firefighters, and their respective families.

“A week later I was in a meeting in Vancouver when I was called by the Chief of Police (Vince Bevan, at the time) who asked me what I thought of the crack pipe program. I repeated the same thing that I had said to my superintendent. He thanked me and hung up. Thirty minutes later he called back to tell me that, while he understood my position, he could not condone this program. My last comment to him was this really was not a police issue.

“What happened next was a long drawn out war of words between the chief and the medical officer of health The chief spoke about sending the wrong message about drug use while Dr. Robert Cushman (medical officer of health at the time) talked about the need to prevent the spread of disease.

“My next intersection with harm reduction came at the 2005 Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police conference held, coincidentally, in Ottawa. Only two police leaders voted against a resolution that called on the government to only implement harm reduction drug strategies based on evidence and be equally supported by treatment, prevention, education and services. The ‘whereas’ section, that rationalized the resolution, reflected some very dark ages thinking on the part of police leadership. Those raising their hands in opposition were singled out by name at the plenary session – a first in my.

“Some four years later I was involved in the same discussion with the current chief who told me that he could not support the program. I said the same things about how a program like this would at least try to protect our front line police officers and other first responders. Suddenly in exasperation, he looked at me and said, “This isn’t even a police issue!” I shot back, “Bingo! You are absolutely right, this isn’t a police issue. This is all about the health care community taking actions they know to be in the best interests of our society. It is a difficult issue because the majority of the visible habitual user community are homeless or street people. Every day these people are essentially ignored by all of us – from the highest political office to that of the everyday person. I suppose most of us would simply like them to disappear.

”The police and political elements need to rationally examine why they are opposed to ways of treating those in our communities who really need help.”

By Ed Board
Source: Ottawa Citizen