Edmonton police were put on the defensive July 17 after they arrested a pregnant, 33-year-old, solvent-sniffing mother. Police Chief John Lindsay said the action was taken for the sake of the woman and her child. Jeanette Reid was later charged with illegally sniffing solvents, and sentenced to six months in jail.

But that is not what has some people up in arms. It is Lindsay’s explanation which has caused the most concern. “In this case, it was quite evident she was very pregnant. We have to be aware of the fact there could be harm to an unborn child,” said Lindsay. Human rights activists complained that Reid was used as a guinea pig to push for legislation which would enable police to take people into custody to protect them from themselves.

A foot-patrol officer spotted Jeanette Reid sniffing from a lacquer-thinner-soaked rag and was dismayed that she was obviously pregnant. He took her into custody, and 12 hours later, she was rushed from the Edmonton Remand Centre to hospital where she gave birth to a six-pound baby boy. The child is now in the care of others, as are his six siblings, the oldest of whom is seven.

“What are police doing in this mess?” asked Edmonton Journal columnist, Liane Faulder. “Why would police place themselves in the middle of a debate which has already been dismissed by the highest court in the land?” Faulder was referring to the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision which ruled that 22-year-old “Ms G” of Winnipeg, also a solvent sniffer, could not be forced into treatment to protect her unborn child. It was stated by the court that it is Parliament’s role, not that of the courts, to decide on the rights of preborn children.

Ends and means

Edmonton police repeated their calls for politicians to act on the issue. “The end justifies the means,” said police spokesman Bryan Boulanger. “We wanted to draw attention to this social issue and we hoped the woman would receive help in jail.” He stated emphatically that police have no reason to apologize for their actions. “It was done with the best of intentions. We do have a right to a social conscience.”

Chief Lindsay added, “Really, there aren’t any tools available beyond what we used, which was the power of arrest.”

Dr. Michael Morrison of the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission agreed. “Long-term solvent abusers like Jeanette Reid are the most difficult patients to treat. They completely detach from reality and lose their ability to communicate and learn.” He went on to explain that most solvent abusers don’t seek treatment. It is not likely, therefore, that Reid would have sought help on her own, but would have needed intervention.

Evelyn Kohlman, manager of the AADAC Recovery Centre, said solvent abusers are intoxicated most of the time. “They sniff 20 to 30 times a day for highs that last only 45 minutes. Addicts hope never to come down as withdrawal symptoms can be horrific.” One user reported, “When I use solvents, I feel like I’m dead.”

Even Reid’s mother, Lena, felt that jail was the best place for her daughter. “I’m scared for her when she is on the streets. In jail, I know she will be okay,” she said.

She said she wants nothing to do with her daughter when she has been sniffing.

“Education is seen as the answer, not jail time,” said Kathy Lazowski, an offical of Alberta Family and Social Services.

Lazowski didn’t explain, however, how education would have helped in the moment of crisis when police acted to rescue Reid and her baby. No one seems to have any practical answers to the problem of solvent abuse. Most see it as extremely difficult to treat and acknowledge that long-term success is limited.

In the void left when no answer seemed right, police took politically incorrect action to do what they deemed necessary.

This is not a story with a happy ending. Dr. Paul Byrne, co-director of the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre at the University of Alberta, said most of the damage done to Reid’s baby would have happened 15 to 20 weeks before his mother was apprehended.

Moreover, it is likely all of Reid’s children will grow up apart from their mother.