More bins for used needles, more park rangers, more cleanups of parks to eliminate the risk of people and pets getting stabbed by discarded hypodermic needles.
These are oft-repeated proposals by candidates for Vancouver city council and the parks board who know Vancouverites are demanding cleaner, safer parks and streets.
Nearly 1,000 discarded needles are collected daily from the city’s 230 parks and other public places by public workers, contracted organizations and community groups, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. Every day of the year, needles are also picked up by community organizations that partner with Coastal Health, the Vancouver park board and city sanitation workers.
But citizens often complain that many needles are missed or not picked up soon enough.
Discarded needles can expose people and their pets to remnants of drugs like heroin and fentanyl and to life-threatening blood-borne diseases such as HIV.
However, Vancouver Coastal Health says no one has ever acquired HIV, or any other pathogen, from a needle-stick injury related to a discarded needle in a park or any other public place in Vancouver.
Citizens can call the city hotline (311) or a Vancouver Coastal Health-Portland Hotel Society hotline to call for needle pickups. Those who see used needles are urged to call 604-657-6561 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. A worker will go to the area to collect them, usually within hours.
Fern Jeffries, a vocal resident of the Crosstown neighbourhood that includes Andy Livingstone Park and Crosstown Elementary School, said the last time she walked through the park, there were a few dozen needles strewn around. “We’ve essentially got legalized drug use and an open shooting gallery in the park. Treatment for drug addictions is so lacking.”
Jeffries said it sometimes seems as if local government and health officials are more concerned about enabling drug users by doling out unlimited numbers of clean needles than in cleaning up city streets and parks. But she agrees there is no easy solution.
A COPE park board candidate, John Irwin, suggested at an all-candidates forum that a needle deposit program might be tried to encourage injection drug users to pick up after themselves. Drug users would have to return used needles in order to get more needles. Or it could be like a drink container deposit system in which individuals collect used needles and return them for a bit of cash.
In California’s Santa Cruz County, for example, mobile needle exchanges have been eliminated and drug users can’t get clean needles unless they turn in an equal number of used ones.
But Tiffany Akins, a spokeswoman for Coastal Health, says the “one-for-one” concept is not a best practice under harm reduction principles because drug users might just find it easier to share or reuse their needles, with health consequences.
“Our clinics will distribute clean needles to anyone, regardless of how many used needles they return.”
Coastal Health has other reasons, too, for opposing a deposit program.
It says putting a value on needles could lead to unequipped people collecting needles for profit, running a risk of needle-stick injury. And, as long as Coastal Health hands out free needles, profit-seekers could show up for those needles, throw out the packaging and return them unused to collect the “deposit.”
“This is wasteful of harm-reduction supplies and funds and may contribute to drug litter including needle wrappers.”
Theft becomes a concern: “Placing a monetary value on used needles may result in people removing or breaking into sharps containers. This may increase drug litter as containers are emptied to remove the needles. … If fixed box sharps containers are removed, there will be nowhere to dispose of used supplies, increasing drug litter.”
Irwin says he knows there are risks around used needles. “I get the graveness of the issue on both sides. But maybe a pilot project could be proposed.”
Cameron Zubko, a Vision candidate, said at an all-candidates meeting that the opioid epidemic has contributed to the enormous number of needles being discarded. NPA incumbent John Coupar last year introduced a motion for a big funding increase to hire more park rangers, among other things, but city council didn’t act on it.
Ann Goodell, a Beatty Street resident who moved downtown 20 years ago, said there’s been a steady deterioration in the quality of life because of the number of people using drugs and littering, urinating and defecating at the entrance to their building. Her husband Rob has written letters to civic election candidates to highlight the problems, including discarded needles and the “never-ending parade of people shooting up below our balcony.”
In 2017, 235,778 used drug needles were returned to Vancouver collection sites, down from 257,250 in 2016.
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