3 min

When council causes harm

City hall isn't living in the real world

Alex Munter likes to say that Ottawa has been in a transition from a big small city to a small big city. Nothing shows the growing pains involved in that evolution more clearly than the recent nonsense around the city’s very important crack pipe program.

On the whole, city councillors from rural and suburban areas voted to shut down the crack pipe program while those from the city core voted to keep it. The vote was sadly reminiscent of last year’s council vote on emergency funding for the Pride Parade. And also a near mirror-image of the mayoral race last fall, where residents of the urban core voted for Alex Munter while the larger number of people living in the burbs and rural areas went for Larry O’Brien (I wonder if they’re feeling foolish yet?).

This about dealing with the world as it really is, rather than as some ideologically driven people might wish it to be. In the real world, you can’t get solve the existence of homeless people by treating them like pigeons and not giving them money, as the mayor suggested recently. In the real world, you have to recognize that there is a gay and lesbian community in Ottawa, something amalgamated Ottawa has failed to do. In the real world, there are drug addicts and you cannot wish them away.

In the real world, we deal with the facts, not letting ideology dictate our actions.

The facts are that harm reduction works. That’s why, for example, the province forced a needle-exchange program on Ottawa, despite opposition from some politicians. The needle exchange program allows addicts to trade a used rig for a clean one. Surprise, it results in fewer addicts catching HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases from shared needles. Every time someone catches HIV, it costs society an estimated $600,000 in health costs. Given that money talks, even among rightwing ideologues, opposition has died down on needle exchange programs.

So it’s a surprise that the crack-pipe program would attract such claptrap as politicians and police chiefs suggesting that it amounts to city hall endorsing drug abuse. For just $8,200 a year, crack addicts are handed an alternative to homemade pipes, made from easily available pop cans, that cause their lips to crack. Cracked lips create perfect conditions for passing on HIV and hep C. Lives are saved by this program. An Ottawa U study concluded the program should be supported.

Opponents noted that the number of people smoking crack appeared to increase because of the program. But that’s a good thing: because of the easy availability of the crack pipes, addicts were switching from injecting drugs to smoking crack. That’s a good switch in terms of health outcomes because rigs are worse for your health, even with a needle-exchange program.

This program is way too important to get caught up in such silliness. Lives are at stake. Do suburban councillors not realize that it’s people from their homes that end up on our downtown streets? Do they not care if their daughters sleep one night with an addict downtown (they don’t wear badges, you know) and catch a disease?

It’s good to see AIDS Committee Of Ottawa coming to the forefront on this issue. Our community has more than our share of addicts. ACO should continue to distribute crack pipes. Other organizations, from Canadian AIDS Society to Bruce House to Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset Community Health Centre need to create a loud chorus. These pipes must be distributed no matter who says no, no matter who leans on whom, no matter where the funds are found. This fight must not be over.

It’s good to see provincial cabinet minister Jim Watson taking this vote as an opportunity to bring Queen’s Park to the table for a 48-bed treatment facility. But that’s not enough. The McGuinty government must make it mandatory that Toronto and Ottawa, the two largest cities and with major populations of drug addicts, hand out crack pipes. Harm reduction is the official policy of our provincial health ministry and it needs to be expanded gradually from needles, to crack pipes, to full-fledge implementation of a four-pillar approach to drugs (Prevention, Treatment, Harm Reduction and Enforcement), including safe injection sites.

Ottawa is a big city now with big city issues. It needs big city solutions. Not small-minded ignorance and ideologically motivated silliness.