Vancouver’s drug woes escalate

Safe injection sites reduce harm. Do they encourage abuse?

Vancouver’s hard drug trade is going gangbusters. A new report, released last month by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, notes a “ten-fold” increase in the use of crack cocaine, and a major increase in the use of crystal methamphetamine by street youth over the past decade. Roughly 90 per cent of adult drug users say they can score cocaine or crack within 10 minutes, while 60 per cent of street youth say they can buy crystal meth in that same time frame. And just in time for the Olympics, 40 per cent say they have injected in public.

The study, the first comprehensive look at the epidemic of hard drug use in Vancouver, shows that the federal government’s anti-drug strategy is “failing,” say authors Evan Wood and Thomas Kerr. The key to reducing disease and hardship caused by drug addiction, they argue, is “harm reduction” policies. The authors point to a significant decrease in needle-sharing, which has led to a decrease in HIV and hepatitis-C infections, thanks to initiatives like Insite, the controversial supervised-injection facility the federal government has attempted to close. (Ottawa is currently appealing a May 2008 B.C. Supreme Court decision that has allowed Insite to remain open temporarily.)

“How can you call that success?” asks retired RCMP officer Chuck Doucette, vice-president of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada. Vancouver, with “the worst drug problem in Canada,” also has “the most harm reduction programs,” he adds. While harm reduction may work to reduce harm to addicts, it doesn’t curb drug use, he says. “What works,” he says, is “treatment, enforcement, and getting people off drugs.”

Yes, intervention works, says Dr. Brian Conway, one of the country’s foremost experts on AIDS policy, but there aren’t enough hospital beds to treat users. “The problem is: if someone walks in today, and wants to go into detox, the waiting time is seven to 10 days,” he says. “And injection drug users don’t have a day of clarity, or a week of clarity; they have a moment of clarity.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.