Councillors back needle boxes, other addictions measures

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City council will vote next week on three separate motions aimed at addressing the area’s overdose and addictions crises.

Council’s planning and operations committee on Tuesday backed a recommendation to install six needle disposal boxes in city parks.

It also approved a separate motion to call on the federal government to make the overdose crisis a national public health emergency – although a clause touching on decriminalization of illicit drugs is likely to get a rough ride at next Tuesday’s debate.

A third motion, directing city staff to share potentially life-saving information about such things as toxic drugs, easily passed at the committee.

The planning committee approved a recommendation to install needle boxes at Centeen Park, Blockhouse Island, Hardy Park, Rotary Park, St. Lawrence Park and the Rotary Field House on Laurier Boulevard.

A report by city staff estimates the needle boxes would cost at least $1,113, plus tax and delivery, with an annual maintenance cost of $3,120 not including tax or delivery, based on a weekly changeout.

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Coun. Leigh Bursey said the needle boxes won’t solve the problem of illicit substance use or addictions, but will mitigate some potential dangers to the public.

“I don’t believe that this encourages usage,” added Bursey. “This is understanding that usage exists.”

Committee members noted that drug use is not the only reason for the use of syringes, and the disposal boxes could be used by people with medical needs.

Naomi McNeill, chairwoman of the steering committee crafting a municipal drug strategy for Brockville, said the evidence supports Bursey’s claim that needle boxes don’t encourage drug use.

“It’s an issue of community safety,” she said.

“People who use drugs are not monsters. They’re not trying to dispose of the needles in a not-safe way.”

Usually, the community doesn’t give these people the option of doing it safely, added McNeill.

Installing needle boxes “actually humanizes people who use drugs,” she said.

Bursey introduced the second motion, calling on the federal government to “declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency so that it is taken seriously and funded appropriately.”

The committee moved that recommendation forward to council in a 2-1 vote, with Mayor Jason Baker against, but comments from other councillors who are not on the planning committee suggest the full council may give the resolution a difficult time next week.

The main sticking-point is language calling on Ottawa to consider decriminalizing illicit drugs for personal use.

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Baker said his “No” vote would have been a “Yes” had that wording been excised.

Coun. Jeff Earle, one of two non-committee-members to speak at Tuesday’s virtual planning committee session, said legalizing other drugs would cause harm, not reduce it.

“I don’t think legalizing drugs has any more use than us promoting selling beer at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting,” said Earle.

“You’re talking about some serious drugs here.”

Earle faulted Bursey for going ahead with these suggestions without recommendations from the drug strategy steering committee, of which Bursey is a member.

Earle said the number of overdoses has increased because drug dealers are not being prosecuted as much during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The attorney general’s office has gone home for the COVID vacation,” said Earle.

Coun. Larry Journal, another non-member of the planning committee, also said the decriminalization wording would prompt him to vote against the motion. He also noted the overdose epidemic is an issue better handled by the regional health unit.

“I’m concerned that we’re taking time and energy, as a municipality, in doing someone else’s job. We’re doing the job of public health,” said Journal, who stressed he supports the city’s participation in the drug strategy effort.

Bursey, meanwhile, said his colleagues have the option of moving to amend the motion if they don’t like parts of it.

He also noted the vitriol aimed at him in social media comments, including one user who sarcastically suggested Bursey set up a naloxone clinic in his living room.

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“I thought that was quite charming because, frankly, if I could, I would,” Bursey remarked, adding he lost someone he knew recently to “a preventable circumstance.”

There was less debate over the third addictions-related motion. Committee members backed a recommendation to “direct staff to share life saving information such as ‘Alert Documentation’ about toxic drugs on the corporation’s website or social media in a timely fashion as recommended by such community partners and channels as the Brockville Police Service, Brockville General Hospital, the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit and the Brockville Municipal Drug Strategy Steering Committee.”

Brockville Police Staff Sgt. Tom Fournier, who also sits on the drug strategy steering committee, said people sometimes get caught up in terminology and do not distinguish between legalization and decriminalization.

“When we talk decriminalization, it doesn’t mean that it’s open and free for everybody,” said Fournier.

A long process will be needed before anyone considers decriminalization, said Fournier, adding the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is arguing the problem should be treated as a public health issue rather than a medical one.

That discussion should include an improved, publicly-funded treatment option for people with addictions, added Fournier.

“You shouldn’t have to be charged with a criminal offense to get treatment,” he said.

Rzajac@postmedia.com

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