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Abusing the User: Police Misconduct, Harm Reduction and HIV/AIDS in Vancouver
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Abusing the User: Police Misconduct, Harm Reduction and HIV/AIDS in Vancouver
Human Rights Watch Report, May 2003

What is this report about?
This report documents human rights violations carried out in connection with the Vancouver Police Department’s recent anti-drug crackdown on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Canada. It documents numerous instances of unnecessary use of force, arbitrary arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, harassment and intimidation of individuals not charged with trafficking drugs, in violation of their rights of due process under Canadian and international law. It also documents the severe health impact of the police’s actions, in particular the curtailment of life-saving health services such as needle exchange, HIV testing and counseling, and overdose prevention. The report shows that, while the recent police crackdown was intended to target drug traffickers, it has exacted a potentially lethal toll on drug users, sex workers and other residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Why focus on Vancouver?
Vancouver is home to what may be the worst epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the developed world. As many as 40 percent of the estimated 5000 injection drug users living in the Downtown Eastside are HIV-positive—a number that compares to some of the worst AIDS epidemics in the developing world. Addressing an AIDS epidemic of this magnitude by persecuting those most at risk, especially injection drug users, is a sure way to fuel the epidemic even further. Vancouver is also a candidate city for the 2010 Winter Olympics. As the July 2003 announcement of the host city draws nearer, the dangerous temptation to ‘clean up’ the streets of the Downtown Eastside through repressive means may increase.

Doesn’t Vancouver support harm reduction and safe injection sites?
In December 2002, Vancouver elected a mayor, Larry Campbell, who advocated addressing the city’s drug problem with “four pillars”: prevention, treatment, law enforcement, and harm reduction. Harm reduction involves strategies, such as needle exchange, methadone maintenance and safe injection sites that aim to reduce the harmful effects of illegal drug use rather than punishing drug users for their addiction. Mayor Campbell has long supported needle exchange and promised to have a safe injection site up and running in Vancouver by January 2003. Since he took office that month, however, the current police crackdown has been the city’s most conspicuous anti-drug initiative. Unleashing law enforcement without guaranteeing access to harm reduction services can be fatal, as it drives injection drug users underground and out of reach of life-saving HIV and hepatitis C prevention services.

Isn’t it too soon to predict the health impact of the police crackdown?
Outreach workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that in the days immediately following the launch of the crackdown, they exchanged only a fraction of their usual number of sterile syringes. They also said that individuals at high risk of HIV and hepatitis C infection were, out of fear of police, more reluctant to seek testing and counseling for sexually transmitted diseases. It has been argued that the reason needle exchanges distributed fewer needles is that the crackdown reduced the supply of injectable drugs on the streets. However, outreach workers also told Human Rights Watch that since the beginning of the crackdown, users were turning in needles that had been used so many times they had been taped together and the syringe markings had worn off. These are sure signs of syringe reuse and sharing, both high-risk injection behaviors.

What about the interests of law-abiding residents of the Downtown Eastside?
Cracking down on illegal drug use in a manner that violates the due process rights of suspected drug users does not serve the interests of Downtown Eastside residents. Human Rights Watch’s report illustrates that police action contributes to the sale of “fake” drugs on the street, potentially igniting violence among drug users and drug dealers. Interrupting the work of AIDS outreach workers means fewer contaminated syringes being picked up off the street, less testing and counseling for sexually transmitted diseases, and an increased likelihood of drug users injecting in isolated, unsafe locations. This does not serve the interests of the Vancouver community. Human Rights Watch supports the Vancouver Police Department in fulfilling their obligation to maintain law and order, but in a manner that does not violate fundamental human rights.

Doesn’t British Columbia already have an independent commission to investigate police misconduct?
British Columbia has a provincially appointed commissioner who has the power to receive complaints about police misconduct and make recommendations. However, the law does not require that complaints be investigated by a body other than the police department in question. Thus, complaints about misconduct on the part of the Vancouver Police Department are sent to the department itself, creating both the perception and the real possibility of bias. Human Rights Watch recommends that a commission be established that does not rely on police departments to investigate their own misconduct. We also recommend that the Vancouver city council hold public hearings on the impact of the recent crackdown, and that any evaluation of the crackdown be conducted by someone with established public health credentials.

What is Human Rights Watch?
Human Rights Watch is the largest human rights organization based in the United States. We monitor human rights developments in over seventy countries worldwide. Our HIV/AIDS program has produced reports on abuses of the rights of injection drug users and other persons vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and persons living with HIV/AIDS in numerous countries, including the United States, Kazakhstan, India, Zambia and Kenya. “Abusing the User” is Human Rights Watch’s first report on Canada since 1994.