February 11, 2015
Give back safe smoking room to Vancouver crack users, study says
According to the authors of a recently-published study titled “We need somewhere to smoke crack," the room protected crack users from violence, connected them with health care services, kept them away from public spaces and prevented the spread of disease from pipe-sharing [Video].
Vancouver drug users want their illegal crack-smoking room back.
For three years, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users’ (VANDU) operated an unsanctioned, peer-run “safer smoking room” for crack users in a small ventilated washroom in its Downtown Eastside facility.
It protected crack users from violence, connected them with health care services, kept them away from public spaces and prevented the spread of disease from pipe-sharing, according to the authors of a recently-published study titled “We need somewhere to smoke crack.”
“Our findings underscore how the (safer smoking room) emerged in response to social violence experienced by people who smoke crack in the local drug scene, and minimized the potential for health and social harms by reshaping the environmental contexts of crack smoking,” wrote authors from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, the University of B.C., Simon Fraser University and VANDU.
Health authorities ordered VANDU to shut down its supervised drug consumption services in December, 2013, however, because the organization was operating without an exemption from the federal Controlled Drug & Substances Act, according to the study’s authors.
Vancouver Coastal Health spokeswoman Anna Marie D’Angelo confirmed in an email that VCH asked VANDU to close an unsanctioned safe injection room it was running in 2013, but said VCH was not aware of VANDU’s safer smoking room.
Dr. Thomas Kerr, senior author of the study and co-director for the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS’ Addiction and Urban Health Research Initiative, said he wishes the federal government would allow further research into the impact of such a room.
“I think Vancouver Coastal Health would probably love to extend supervised consumption to include inhalation, but their hands are tied by a federal government that’s got its head in the sand and has implemented a series of policies that actually exacerbate rather than address drug-related harm,” Kerr said.
“By providing an environment where people who use drugs can inhale crack, it’s good for drug users, it protects their health and it’s good for the broader community by bringing people out from public spaces into a health environment where we can address their health needs and simultaneously address community safety issues.”
The safer smoking room was a haven for vulnerable crack users, said VANDU president Hugh Lampkin.
“The (alternative) to that is people who are in a laneway and hitting the rock, the cops will roll up on them — or somebody else who’s out there and the only thing that’s on their mind is getting more at any price.
“If that person (smoking crack) happens to be a small female or small guy ... the chances of the violence occurring goes up exponentially.”
Lampkin said VANDU didn’t apply for a federal exemption to operate the safer smoking room because the organization knew it had little chance of getting one without being a recognized clinic.
Portland Hotel Society also set space aside for a safe smoking room but was unable to use it without approval from Health Canada and VCH, former director Mark Townsend told Megaphone Magazine in 2013
Harm reduction in Vancouver gained international attention when PHS Community Services Society and VCH launched the Insite safe injection site in 2003.
Twice the federal government took Insite’s operators to Supreme Court in an attempt to shut the program down, but both times it lost.
In June 2013, the introduction of Bill C-65 (now C-2), the Respect for Communities Act, put further restrictions on the creation and expansion of programs like Insite.
“Our Government believes that creating a location for sanctioned use of drugs obtained from illicit sources has the potential for great harm in the community,” former Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said at the time.
Vancouver Police Department spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham said police are aware of past attempts to open “medically supervised safer smoking facilities,” but said local health authorities would need to deem them appropriate within the harm reduction model — with safety being the primary concern.
As well, they’d need to meet the VPD’s three other harm reduction strategies of prevention, enforcement and treatment.
Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East and former NDP health critic, called the federal government “ideologically opposed” to harm reduction and said she supports VANDU’s efforts.
“A safe injection site, a safe smoking room — it’s not the be-all, end-all — it’s part of a larger strategy around harm reduction, around dealing with drug use in our society,” she said.
“It’s driven by necessity, by what people actually need to survive and to hopefully be able to cope with their addictions and be able to move forward.”
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