Vancouver is going to get its first safe smoking site for crack cocaine users since 2003.
A support group, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), is planning to convert its office in the Downtown Eastside into a place where crack cocaine users can smoke in a supervised space.
The facility would be modeled on legal drug consumption rooms in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.
VANDU is pushing ahead with plans, even though the group would be breaking the law.
“Doing it illegally is the only way to get a legal place,” said Ann Livingston, coordinator at VANDU.
There are no supervised crack consumption rooms in the Downtown Eastside, but users regularly smoke crack cocaine in VANDU’s main floor bathroom during office hours.
The Attorney General of Canada is currently involved in a legal battle to shut down Vancouver’s supervised injection facility, InSite, and prevent other drug injection and consumption sites from opening.
“We think they are inherently harmful to health,” said Pamela Stephens, press secretary for the Minister of Justice. “They deepen and prolong addictions.”
VANDU and the Department of Justice are awaiting a decision from the BC Court of Appeal about whether drug consumption sites should be allowed a permanent exemption from the Controlled Drug and Substances Act to operate legally.
“It’s a risk”
VANDU’s Livingston said crack cocaine users cannot keep waiting.
“Everyone thinks we got dressed up and talked to the Minister of Health, that’s how we got an injection site. That’s not how we got it,” she said. Instead, she said, what led to InSite was the normalization of safe injections through the unsanctioned drug consumption sites that preceded it.
That’s why she is planning another illegal consumption space. “I know it’s a risk, but I’m just so mad,” she said.
Plans for the space come as a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested that safe-inhalation sites could mitigate the risk of AIDS.
The study found that:
- Daily crack cocaine users in Vancouver increased 29%, among the sample, between 1996 and 2005.
- Approximately 87% of users are homeless or live in transient housing, which has left alleys and streets as some of the few places available to smoke.
- Daily crack cocaine use was found to be an independent risk factor in HIV infection.
The reasons for why crack cocaine use increased the risk of HIV infection were not determined.
“Whether it was something within their sexual network, or whether when they’re sharing pipes and they have burns or cuts or sores on their mouth and lips, there’s a lot there to look at and unpack,” said Kora DeBeck, who headed the study.
But DeBeck said reducing AIDS is not the only reason to develop these kinds of facilities.
“We’ve seen that people who use the supervised injection site [InSite] had 30% intake in drug treatment centres versus those who don’t use those centres,” she said.
“We would certainly expect or we anticipate that an inhalation room may have a similar impact in terms of entry into addiction treatment.”
Opinion is divided on the usefulness and practicality of these safe smoking sites.
A crack user who has been homeless for the past nine years and wanted to be referred to as Serina, said she would use a consumption site to smoke.
“Based solely on the environment, the climate, and the unpredictability, of being a woman,” she said. “What I’m susceptible to, just being here as a woman, and attempting to survive.”
Her friend, Debbie Charles, a former addict who performs outreach for a recovery centre, offered a different view. “I believe it’s a crutch. It’s either clean up or don’t clean up.”
The last unsanctioned consumption space in the neighbourhood experienced significant problems while open from September to April 2003 at 327 Carrall Street.
Hendrik Beune, who volunteered and smoked at the space, said violence erupted after drug dealers were allowed to set up at there. Spending their own money to maintain the site, volunteers were in debt and exhausted when they finally shut it down.
Despite these problems, Beune said the facility was also very positive.
“It was a victory for us, you know. People on the streets didn’t have no rights, so we were standing up for our rights, we were just doing it. The atmosphere was really good.”
For VANDU’s Livingston, a consumption site will replicate that victory. A space to smoke indoors will give crack users a “moral rightness” in the larger community.
“It keeps everyone hating them when they smoke on the street,” she said.