Margaret Mills

Twelve needles found in Maffeo Sutton Park

Used needles on increase in city parks and public spaces.

Twelve drug needles found dumped in Maffeo Sutton Park children’s playground this fall was a shock to city horticulturalist Margaret Mills, who says it’s a rare find and “very upsetting.”

But it’s nothing new for the downtown community, which is grappling with an uptick in discarded drug paraphernalia.

A parent alerted Mills, who maintains the waterfront park, on Oct. 20 that there were 12 needles left in the children’s playground. Six were still in a package, while the other half were used.

While the horticulturalist has found more in other areas of downtown, it’s the first time she’s seen needles in the kids’ park. She combs the area for garbage in the morning regularly, saying it’s important to her and those with young kids.

“I take that stuff kind of personally because … I maintain that park and have for years, and I would not want my own grandchildren or children to pick up something like that,” she said.

In Nanaimo’s downtown there’s been an increase in the past two years in discarded needles, according to police and city employees, who note an increase in the use of injectable drugs. Police report an increased use of heroin and meth and have seen new transient drug users.

Two times this year a “massive amount” of used needles were dropped in parks, and in Piper’s Park alone, volunteers estimate they’ve found 50 discarded needles in the last six months, said Al Britton, the city’s manager of parks operations.

“You always find a few here and there, but this year has just been prevalent with needles. It’s been crazy,” he said.

Efforts have been underway to manage the problem, including a boost in safe disposal boxes from four set up in 2011 to 10, but people are still advised be aware of the issue.

“A lot of it is getting the public to realize that … this is going on and just don’t assume the place is going to be safe when you let a kid run in there,” said Britton. “You need to be aware in the downtown area we have a large homeless population and they, from time to time, will leave a needle laying around.

“You would hope that they would stay out of a kids’ play park, but they don’t.”

John Horn, the city’s social planner, said Maffeo Sutton Park is not a popular destination for people who want to share drugs because so many people use the space, but users do congregate in public spaces like parks and school yards, streets and sidewalks.

Most local long-term intravenous drug users know what the needle boxes are for and dispose relatively safely, but some don’t, he said.

Bylaw officers and city gardeners do regular morning checks of public spaces and the police educate users on safe disposal.

The parks department hired the Commissionaires on a trial basis to disrupt late-night and early morning activities at Piper’s and Deverill Square parks.

No communication strategy has been launched to inform the public about discarded needles, but it is a possibility, Horn said. The city typically works with downtown neighbourhoods that are affected by the problem.

“That’s a fairly alarming message to send to 86,000 people  – watch out for needles – when really the problem is pretty much the downtown core,” Horn said.

If anyone finds a used needle, they are asked to call Nanaimo’s bylaw department 250-755-4422 or the Commissionaires on the weekend at 250-758-5222.

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