ZYTARUK: Two decades of harm reduction has Surrey knee-deep in needles

There’s a fine line between saving lives and enabling behaviour that puts lives at risk. Whatever the case, things are getting worse.

There’s a fine line between saving lives and enabling behaviour that puts lives at risk

Wow, let’s pour more gas on our fire, shall we?

It is of course outrageous that Surrey recorded so many drug overdoses this past week. I won’t even venture a guess how many we’re at today, because they’re happening every day, along 135A Street, or “The Strip.”

Back in the early 1990s, when people referred to “The Strip” – also known back then as “The Stroll” – they were talking about a stretch of roughly three city blocks along King George Highway, between 105th and 108th Avenues, which at the time had a monumental street prostitution problem.

People in the social services business grew worried about the spread of AIDs. Along with prostitution came intravenous drug use.

I’m not quite sure what happened to the street prostitutes. Back then, literally dozens worked the strip. You saw them all the time, mid-block and on all the corners. I recall interviewing one of them, one Friday night, when she wasn’t busy with her tricks.

She ran a tight schedule. There was actually a small line-up of johns leaning against a shop wall, each waiting his turn.

Anyway, someone thought it was a good idea to set up a needle exchange in Whalley like the one they already had in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

And so Surrey’s opened in November 1992, on 135A Street. Bob Bose, who was Surrey’s mayor at the time, urged caution, warning the health unit that such a move would surely gall local residents who were concerned that handing out free needles would only exacerbate drug abuse here.

Smart fellow, that Bob.

Later came the Front Room. Free condoms were also handed out. As a result, “The Strip,” as it were, seismically shifted over to 135A Street and, free needle by free needle, morphed into the god-forsaken stretch of road it is today.

Last week, Lookout Emergency Aid Society told this newspaper that it had collected 592,073 discarded needles from Surrey’s streets last year. I don’t purport to be a mathematician, but I can say to a moral certainty that there sure as hell weren’t 592,073 needles littering Surrey’s streets back in 1992.

SEE ALSO: Surrey businesses offer up fresh solutions to needle nightmare

Jumping ahead to 2002, city councillor Dianne Watts, who later became Surrey’s mayor, wanted to see Whalley’s needle exchange service decentralized as it had become a “magnet” for crime in Whalley. She called on the provincial government to review its delivery model considering the Surrey RCMP had in the previous year received roughly 400 calls to the exchange and its immediate vicinity.

“So that’s every day,” Watts told me at the time. “It has been a real magnet for drug dealers, prostitution and crack houses in the area. We need to find another way of delivering the service.”

City councillor Barbara Steele, who happened to live in a high-rise in North Surrey, said in 2002 that people are getting “much more frustrated” with North Surrey’s social problems.

“I think something has to be done sooner, not later, and now is the time it really needs to be done.”

Well, here we are, 14 years later. Steele’s still on council, and we’re knee-deep in used needles. I exaggerate, but you get the point.

This week, people have overdosed in Surrey by the dozens, thanks to heroin being cut with fentanyl. Most of those overdoses happened on 135A. In response, the Fraser Health Authority is looking into setting up a supervised injection site here in Surrey.

SEE ALSO: Number of used needles strewn about Surrey is shocking

Also in response, Sukh Dhaliwal, MP for Surrey-Newton, issued a press release floating the idea of possibly setting up a safe-injection site.

“I don’t believe that this is a time for media soundbites, or blind ideology that is based on electoral politics,” he stated. “I want to get all local elected representatives together in a room with health experts, community support workers and law enforcement so that we can have an honest discussion that leaves no stone unturned, and considers all possibilities to fight this crisis.”

Mayor Linda Hepner’s take?

“I’m really not in favour of a stand-alone safe injection site,” she told me this week.

She wants a solution to the drug problem here but fears setting up a dedicated site “puts it squarely forever in the community.” Given Whalley’s experience over the past couple of decades with handing out needles, etc., you can’t fault Hepner’s trepidation.

There’s a fine line between saving lives and enabling behaviour that puts lives at risk. Whatever the case, we’re more than two decades into harm reduction in Whalley and things are getting worse, not better.

As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

And then there’s W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, in which the author writes, “If you build it, he will come.”

Of course, Kinsella was referring to a baseball diamond, not a needle exchange or a so-called safe injection site. But the same concept applies, I think.

After all, the Downtown Eastside is just a SkyTrain ride away from Whalley. Will more drug abusers be drawn to Whalley from elsewhere, with added services? History tells us the answer is yes.

So what to do? I don’t know the answer. Haven’t a clue.

All I do know is that these types of services, while perhaps a necessary evil, have not done the Downtown Eastside or Whalley any favours but rather quite the opposite, and you don’t need to be an Einstein to see that.

Tom Zytaruk is a staff writer with the Now. Email him at tom.zytaruk@thenownewspaper.com

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