Local needle exchange co-ordinator works to provide a safe community

An older story from my time at Coast Reporter. Fitzsimmons was incredible to interview. The Sunshine Coast is lucky to have a such a dedicated person who exemplifies the benefits of harm reduction within the community.

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The Sunshine Coast needle exchange program is a non-judgmental outreach service for intravenous drug users.

In any community, big or small, addiction exists, but the issue of addiction is often swept under the rug. Or those who seek help are unable to receive it due to lack of resources.

Here on the Sunshine Coast, a program is in place to help those who suffer from addictions, and to keep the community safe and its members educated.

The Sunshine Coast needle exchange program is a non-judgmental outreach service for intravenous drug users. coordinated by Brent Fitzsimmons and facilitated by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), it operates on a one-to-one basis, where every clean needle given must have a used needle returned.

By providing the service for anyone wanting to dispose of used needles in a safe and legal way, the program works towards its goals of reducing the spread of Hepatitis C, HIV and other diseases. The service also reduces the number of discarded needles in public and the incidents needle-stick injuries.

A Coast-wide initiative extending from Port Mellon to Egmont, the program runs five days a week, from noon to 7:30 p.m., and services its clients confidentially. It also works closely with the Powell River and Sea to Sky exchanges, with interaction from Vancouver exchanges.

Fitzsimmons said the exchange is 100 per cent client-based, and the Sunshine Coast program is unique in the fact that it’s considered a mobile exchange.

He said when he gets a page, he meets people where they want to meet to give them safer injection or smoking equipment. As a result, he is often invited into people’s homes, enabling him to make a personal connection.

“The power struggle doesn’t exist because I’m on their turf. Often times people are a lot more willing to discuss what’s going on in their life beyond just how much equipment they need,” he said.

Fitzsimmons clarifies that while he is not a councillor, he is able to offer referrals to those who may want to seek treatment for their addiction or any other health concerns.

Community support, Fitzsimmons said, is pivotal to the exchange. There is an advisory committee that meets approximately three times a year and a cross-section of people is invited to attend, ranging from members of the public to youth and mental health workers to RCMP officers.

“We try to pull in anybody that might have an interest in the program, and we really depend on that support for the community to keep the program going,” Fitzsimmons said.

Although Fitzsimmons is the sole co-ordinator for the program, he receives support from the advisory committee, a pubic health nurse and a manager. His role entails a large responsibility, but Fitzsimmons said his clients are well informed about how the program works and active in returning needles.

“We have a really high return rate. Last quarter, from January to March, we had a 97 per cent return rate. For the whole of last year, we had an 84 per cent return rate,” he said.

Sunshine Coast RCMP Const. Glen Martin represents policing interests at the advisory meetings. He said the high return rate is good to see.

“It’s putting innocent people less at risk from a discarded needle,” Martin said.

When asked if there is a drug user demographic on the Coast, Fitzsimmons said, “If I had to boil it down to a person, it would be a male, between the age of 40 and 50, who is a poly-drug user. People need to try to understand that no one wants to be a drug addict or alcoholic, no one chooses that. If a person’s only coping mechanism is drugs and alcohol, before we can expect them to stop that behaviour, we need to provide them with other coping mechanisms.”

Some may find the idea of needle exchange controversial and argue it may encourage drug use, similar to the controversy surrounding Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site. Fitzsimmons dispels this notion.

“It is my belief, and the belief of VCH harm reduction programs, that providing clean equipment for people does not encourage drug use,” he said. “By forcing people to use dirty equipment we are pretty much sentencing them to contacting HIV or Hepatitis C. These people using drugs, they’re our family members, our friends, our workmates, and it’s within all our interests to keep people healthy, both compassionately and financially.”

Martin, however, said he feels there are challenges with harm reduction.

“It’s difficult to encourage the harm reduction, I think, just because the drugs are so harmful themselves,” Martin said. “No matter how safe you are about the method you’re using, the harm of using drugs is so high.”


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