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Controversy erupts after Edmonton workers stop handing out syringes, pipes near transit

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In an attempt to reduce open drug use in public places, city harm-reduction contractors are no longer giving syringes and pipes to people in pedways or near transit centres – a change attracting mixed reaction.

The "clarified approach" took effect Feb. 1 because of safety concerns, a city official in charge of the program said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton.

"We anticipate this clarification will prevent negative interactions between those working in transit spaces and those turning to transit spaces to consume drugs," said bus operations director Ryan Birch.

"The Opioid Response Team continues to hand out food, naloxone and educational supplies on transit property."

The mayor applauded the change, saying the harm-reduction strategy was actually increasing risks for passengers and transit workers.

"We were seeing that people were consuming and using [the drug paraphernalia] on transit facilities, which is not the right place to do so," Amarjeet Sohi said.

"I think what we need is more supervised [injection site] locations, more properly managed locations."

Reusing needles to inject drugs puts users at risk of contracting blood borne infections such as HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, according to Alberta Health Services' website.

Sohi's council colleague is worried about that, although she acknowledges the city was sending mixed signals by distributing drug supplies in places where it’s illegal to use them.

"We know that people will still continue to use drugs, whether they have a safe needle or they don’t have a safe needle," said Ward Anirniq Coun. Erin Rutherford.

"I don’t think it’ll stop it from happening, I think we are just putting people more at risk."

The city and the province have for months been trying to find ways to reduce violent crimes and social disorder downtown and on transit.

Edmonton City Council has passed a new Transit Safety Plan, hired more peace officers and security guards and tightened bylaws in an effort to improve safety.

Alberta's UCP government recently appointed a task force and announced that sheriffs will help Edmonton police officers patrol in inner-city Chinatown.

A spokesperson with Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society said he likes the change to no longer handing out needles and pipes, pointing out the main purpose of outreach is to connect the person in need with treatment options.

"They’re still providing opportunities for these folks to get the medical care, housing, financial assistance. That's really the most important thing," said Lloyd Yellowbird.

The president of the local transit union admitted he doesn't have all the answers on how to fix the system but welcomed the effort to improve conditions for workers.

"I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do or not. What I do know is that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working," said Steve Bradshaw.

The city also has Community Outreach Transit Teams (COTT), which see a transit peace officer paired with workers from Bent Arrow to provide access to services for vulnerable people. COTT teams do carry naloxone for drug poisoning reversal, Birch said.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson

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