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Ottawa City Council chooses NIMBYism over public health

This Magazine Staff

I can only describe my mood today as “infuriated, but not surprised.” Yesterday, Ottawa City Council voted to shut down a crack pipe exchange program, despite the strenuous objections of city health officials and local community workers. This came on the heels of an anti-drug demonstration staged by the Sandy Hill Business Improvement Association, who argued that the program led to increased drug use in Ottawa’s touristy Byward Market.
The business owners arrived to a sympathetic audience at city hall. Mayor Larry O’Brien had promised to end the program as part of his municipal election campaign, and yesterday, he teamed up with councillor Rick Chiarelli (and 13 others) to cancel a program that cost a mere $8,000 a year, and had the potential to save a significant number of lives.
Local bloggers are going apeshit about this. Vicky Smallman points out the fact that “Ottawa has an alarmingly high rate of HIV and Hepatitis C infection among Intravenous Drug users – at 21%, it is 9 times greater than Toronto’s infection rate.” Yep, you heard her right. Nine times higher.
And even through city councillors claimed that there was no evidence to suggest that the program was working, they simply chose to ignore a study that the city itself commissioned last year from epidemiologist Lynne Leonard. The study demonstrates that while the program did lead to an increase in crack smoking, it also radically reduced users’ sharing of drug paraphernalia, providing “significant scientific evidence” that the program reduced the harm associated with crack smoking.
As Adam Graham from the AIDS Committee of Ottawa explains, pipe and needle exchange programs also act as a first point of contact between users and health professionals, allowing them to access health services, therefore increasing the likelihood that they’ll also seek out addiction counselling. In the case of crack smoking, a program like this prevents people from using burning metal pipes and cans, which cause open sores, and lead to HIV and hepatitis transmission.
But of course, these rational, health-based, scientifically-proven arguments mean nothing to bunch of city councillors who are more concerned about the “messaging” associated with handing out crack pipes. They’ve chosen to protect knee-jerk sensibilities over people’s lives. It’s simply shameful.
Still, local activists haven’t given up the fight. The AIDS Committee of Ottawa announced that it would continue the program, even without city funding. And the new Ottawa Police chief has urged the city to conduct another study before burying the program for good.
Let’s hope that city council smartens up, and chooses to listen to the facts. I’m not holding my breath.
— Cross posted to Dykes vs. Harper

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