Council votes down controversial program
Tracey Tong/Metro Ottawa
Tracey Tong/Metro Ottawa
The city’s controversial crack pipe program is up in smoke after being scrapped by council.
Council voted 15-7 yesterday to drop a program that critics say promotes illegal drug use, despite an appeal by Ottawa’s chief medical officer to retain a plan that proponents claim reduces the spread of disease among addicts.
“It’s about reducing disease and it’s effective,” said chief medical officer Dr. David Salisbury. “It would be a regressive step if we were to cancel it.”
But opponents argued that handing out crack pipes sends the wrong message to the community.
“I say giving out loot bags to facilitate drug use is not harm reduction,” said Mayor Larry O’Brien, who backed a motion by Coun. Rick Chiarelli to kill the more than two-year-old program.
Calling the crack pipe program “foolishness,” O’Brien said he wants Ottawa to focus on enforcement and education while building better rehabilitation facilities. One recommendation approved by council is to move forward with a 48-bed residential youth treatment facility.
“I’ll be talking to the province about getting some funding for the treatment facility,” said O’Brien.
Supporters of the program, which costs about $8,200 annually to administer, believe providing clean pipes and other drug paraphernalia to addicts stems infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C. The program was part of an overall harm-reduction strategy that includes a provincially mandated needle exchange program.
Diane Holmes, one of seven dissenting councillors, believes council made a political decision that ignores the program’s health benefits.
“HIV is a killing disease and the exposure will go up if we don’t provide clean paraphernalia,” she said.
Activists quickly condemned the decision, framing the provision of crack kits to addicts as an issue of public health and human rights.
“The perception that this program somehow condoned or encouraged drug use is completely false,” said Richard Elliott, deputy director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “When the city started this program, it was aiming to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Today’s decision is a huge step backwards.”
But Chiarelli said the city had been sending the message that it tacitly condones drug use. And he rejected arguments the program reduced the risks of disease, suggesting clean pipes are passed among users after their initial use.
“This doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Chiarelli said, adding the rest of the city’s drug strategy is effective and will provide treatment options.