Parksville city council and health officials were finally able to sit down at a virtual table to discuss the issue of needles in the community.
The long-awaited conversation between council, the Ministry of Health and Island Health officials regarding harm reduction and a proposed city bylaw took place during a special council meeting on Friday, Feb. 11.
At the Feb. 7 regular council meeting, Mayor Ed Mayne said for two years he had requested a meeting to explain why the bylaw to regulate needle distribution in the city was rejected. The bylaw, first proposed in 2019, sought to both determine the type of needles being distributed and to regulate the distribution process within the city.
“This issue was brought up by the citizens of Parksville very loudly and it’s not something we just threw up against the wall to see if it would stick,” he said on Feb. 11. “I personally have received numerous calls, emails and had many discussions from Parksville citizens who are concerned about discarded needles.”
He continued, saying the amount of improperly disposed needles not only cause community safety concerns, and that he is aware of at least four separate ‘prick’ incidents, but it is an embarrassment for the city when it comes to tourism.
“We’ve been attempting to have a positive effect on this situation. And we developed what we considered to be a reasonable recommendation, only to be shot down with the comment that it was against the province’s harm reduction program,” Mayne said, adding the intent of the bylaw was proposed not to restrict access, but more concerning community safety.
“There was strong advice to the minister that the balance was too much in terms of that actually reducing access that could be the impact. Which, what you’re articulating, absolutely was not the intent at all,” said Stephen Brown, deputy minister of health.
Coun. Adam Fras introduced the topic of vanishing-point syringes to the table, showing that once the plunger was fully depressed, the needle automatically retracted into the barrel - eliminating the possibility of multiple users, and posing less of a safety risk if the syringes were left in public spaces. He understood they were more expensive than non-retracting needles, and how only distributing those kinds would not be as cost-efficient. To that end, Fras suggested distributing vanishing-point syringes to only unhoused users who would be more likely to leave them in public spaces.
Kathy McNeil, CEO for Island Health, said more research would need to be done by the community action team, which has relationships with users, to see if retracting needles would be favoured. She said she didn’t think the determination was an Island Health decision alone.
Kenneth Tupper, director doe substance use prevention and harm reduction with the Ministry of Health, said his information, through provincial surveys, indicated the preponderance of users would not use retractable syringes, which has been the basis of their decision.
“(We) certainly can re-explore that question. We can talk to (BC Centre for Disease Control) and think about other ways to consult and explore options around that,” he said.
Coun. Teresa Patterson suggested the city could be used as a test area.
“I’m hoping that Parksville can lead in a small way and have those conversations and have that partnership and really work together,” she said.
McNeil indicated they would try and meet with the community action team in Parksville in the “next couple of weeks” with a specific call-to-action to determine what the next best step to decide on the actions that would be most appropriate.
Mayne requested a member of council sit as a liaison to establish a direct line of communication during those discussions. He also suggested several members of council and health officials work together to figure out what parts of their proposed bylaw would work and what could be amended to ensure both users and community members are safe.