Who says Tales has no compassion?
Amid North America’s worst drug overdose crisis in decades, Vancouver has cultivated two distinct and seemingly contradictory reputations.
On one hand, the city’s known to be ahead of the curve on progressive drug policy—always adopting the latest harm reduction practices and testing new addiction treatments. On the other hand, it’s suffered more drug panics than any other Canadian city, and has a reputation for higher-than-average drug use and addiction rates. Vancouver is simultaneously a place the globe looks to for drug policy guidance, and a cautionary tale of recurring out-of-control epidemics.
Neither of these reputations are new, of course. Vancouver was the first city in North America to open a supervised injection site in 2003. And its history of drug panics spans a full century.
This has led many outside Vancouver to assume new drug policy developments are somehow a contributor to the crisis—that safe injection sites and similar harm reduction practices actually encourage more users. But if you ask the doctors and researchers who have been studying the city’s drug waves for decades, this is a categorically false narrative that goes against a near century of history. Experts told VICE Vancouver has long been an international drug distribution hub, and that reactionary criminalization efforts, as well as failing social policies, have created a concentrated underclass of marginalized drug users.
“Vancouver has always had a high diversity of drugs and a potent supply of drugs,” Dr. Thomas Kerr, associate director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, told VICE. Kerr says many port cities around the world are known for “alarming” levels of drug use, in part because the dope is so strong.
“I know for example I published a study around 2003, and at the time the available data from RCMP labs suggested cocaine in Vancouver was something like 40 percent more pure than the cocaine seized in Western Europe.”
Kerr says heroin and cocaine in particular often arrive in Vancouver first from drug-producing countries. “What happens, I think, is that often when the drugs arrive here, they’re in their most potent form, and as they make their way to distribution networks throughout the country, they increasingly get stepped on, as they say—other fillers are added, and the potency tends to be reduced.”
This potency theory might partially explain why drugs have had such a devastating impact on Vancouver, but Kerr admits it isn’t the whole story. Why, for example, hasn’t Seattle also become “ground zero” for opioid overdoses? (Seattle, it turns out, is quickly catching up to Vancouver, with a record-setting 345 deaths in 2016. Between 2012 and 2016, Metro Vancouver including Surrey saw 1,031 ODs, compared with 995 in Seattle.)
To understand how we got here, according to University of Guelph researcher Catherine Carstairs, you have to look back to Vancouver’s first recorded drug panic in the 1920s. Drugs like morphine, cocaine and opium got an early start in the city before any of these were ever made illegal because of its position as an international port. “The supply chains were established and they kept coming,” says Carstairs, the author of Jailed for Possession.
Carstairs told VICE Canada’s early drug prohibition laws grew out of a xenophobic panic rocking the West Coast. At the time “opium dens” were breathlessly reported as a scourge on (white) society, and politicians brought in laws that basically aimed to punish and ostracize the Chinese. Police began raiding dens and deporting immigrants.
“The drug panic was not so much about the drugs and really about finding an excuse to keep the Chinese out of Vancouver,” Carstairs told VICE. Emily Murphy of Maclean’s, one of Canada’s best-known writers of the era, painted Chinese people as villains somehow taking advantage of white “victims.” At the time, Carstairs says media played a “huge” role in creating a sense of panic, demonizing drug use along the way. “The Vancouver Daily World was clearly selling papers on the drug panic it created,” Carstairs told VICE. “It featured drug stories on front pages for weeks on end.”
By the 1930s, white people were a much larger portion of the drug-using public—thanks in part to the deportation and imprisonment of Chinese users—but government compassion for users did not follow. All users faced harsh minimum sentences, even years of jail time for possession of trace amounts. According to both Kerr and Carstairs, these heavy punishments served to create a class of drug users who could no longer hang on to regular jobs or contribute to regular society. Instead they cycled in and out of jail, learning better ways to access drugs along the way.
Between 1946 and 1961, more than half of all narcotics convictions in Canada were happening in Vancouver, compared to 24 percent in Toronto. “Because we passed such incredibly harsh laws against drugs, and police were busy enforcing them, it really worsened the lives of drug users,” Carstairs told VICE. This wave of enforcement solidified an underclass of drug users unable to free themselves from poverty or addiction.
Through the 50s and 60s Carstairs says drug overdose deaths were surprisingly rare. It would be decades later that opioids became potent enough to kill a person. Addiction was chalked up to personal responsibility, and treatment was not even a remote option.
Meanwhile, Vancouver was gaining a reputation as an “edge of the world” according to Carstairs—a counter cultural hub that some sought to escape responsibility. “If you look at stats from the 50s and 60s, you see divorce rates and illegitimate pregnancy rates were higher,” she said. “People who were of a more alternative or experimental mindset worked their way out there.”
From there, Vancouver’s approach to housing its low-income residents begins to play a role in creating epidemic conditions, according to Kerr. “The fact we have this large network of low income housing that was originally developed for seasonal workers, and over time became homes for the urban poor and the deinstitutionalized mentally ill population, it just created a bad situation,” he said.
The Hastings Street drug market first served a high concentration of transient workers in the 1950s, and later an entrenched homeless and low-income population. Kerr says there’s been as many as 5,000 injection drug users living in a few block radius. Meanwhile, cops had a mandate to shake down suspected users at every turn.
Kerr says homelessness and similarly horrific housing conditions can encourage riskier drug use behaviour. “If you take a population at risk, put them in substandard housing, criminalize them, and you throw police at them, you tend to make a drug problem worse, not better.”
Even as drug use centralized in one low-income neighbourhood, there was still very little talk of treatment in BC. Carstairs says the first solution floated by the government is opening a “treatment prison.”
Then came the deadly drug waves of the 80s and 90s—something Kerr has studied closely. Opioids were not the only drugs ruining lives through these years—cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamine all caused panics of their own. “In the early 90s people were predominantly ingesting heroin,” he said. “There was high potency heroin available because that prompted chief coroner of the province to create a task force looking into the issue of opioid overdose in the province, and in part informed the public health emergency that was declared.”
Police crackdowns continued well into the 90s era as authorities raided “problem premises,” revoked business licences and even imposed a curfew on the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Policing in other neighbourhoods pushed street homeless people to further concentrate in the neighbourhood, while low-income housing options in the country’s most expensive city continued to evaporate. Kerr says the social conditions were ripe for more drug waves to come.
“The next real big wave occurred in mid-90s, when the arrival of powdered cocaine showed up in Vancouver,” Kerr told VICE. He says cocaine injection was what truly kicked off the HIV epidemic in the area, which became the focus of a public health emergency in the late 90s. “This was a real challenge because at the time, while Vancouver had needle exchange operating, it was really designed for heroin users,” he said. “Although heroin users typically inject two or three times, cocaine has a much shorter half life, therefore it’s not uncommon for people to inject 10, 15, 20 times a day, to go several days without sleep and then crash for days.”
It’s worth noting harm reduction resources like needle exchanges were not first introduced on compassionate grounds. Carstairs says political support for these programs originally came from fear of spreading HIV to the rest of the population—not necessarily from improving the lives of users. Drug users were literally labeled a contagion.
Kerr’s team was tasked with containing the spread of disease. “The volumes of needles they were giving out were nowhere near adequate to cover the number of injections cocaine users were doing. That led to very high levels of syringe sharing, difficulties accessing syringes locally and high rates of hepatitis seen as well.”
“In the wake of that, we saw declines in powder cocaine injection, we saw a rise in crack cocaine use,” said Kerr. “Everyone was smoking crack cocaine and the public health system wasn’t ready with this as well… We were surprised to find in our own work that among people in our studies, crack users were more likely acquiring HIV infection. That came as a bit of a surprise because they were mostly inhaling drugs, but a lot were injecting too.”
“Shortly after the big crack wave came, we also documented a large rise in crystal methamphetamine injection. Including among young people,” he said. “If you stand back and look at this recent history, what’s really striking about it is the diversity of drugs.”
All of these drug panics came and went without the province of British Columbia enacting a comprehensive user-focused addiction treatment plan, according to Kerr. And it wasn’t until the 2000s that cops began winding down the War on Drugs approach. “Police have been more progressive of late, and are now supporters of evidence-based treatment, but historically in the 90s, even up to 2003 they were trying to do things like police crackdowns—none of which worked, it actually fueled high-risk behaviour.”
Though all these panics, study after study has proven harm reduction is not to blame. “It’s really frustrating listening to people offering non-evidence based studies, which often happens in case of harm reduction. Intuitively it makes sense—if you provide a syringe, you’re enabling drug use,” said Kerr. However, a scientific evaluation of Insite found supervised injection sites increase the number of treatment and detox admissions.
Looking back at this history, Kerr says harm reduction programs succeeded at containing the spread of needle-borne disease (HIV rates are now below one percent), and reduced overdose deaths, but failed to medically address addiction. “You can’t tell this story without acknowledging we have been totally lacking an effective system of addiction treatment, and it’s been like that for a very long time,” said Kerr. “We’ve gone from saying the system is broken to saying there is no system.”
Kerr says that decades of criminalization have pushed Vancouver drug users further from the health system, which left Vancouver especially vulnerable when fentanyl and other synthetic analogues hit the illicit market. “It’s hard to simultaneously criminalize and provide services. If you’re engaging in illegal behaviour, do you really want to go into a healthcare provider and get treated like crap?”
Though attitudes are shifting, Carstairs agrees that stigma is ultimately what fuels Vancouver’s entrenched drug problem. “They’re still pariahs of our society. I think the laws we put in place, even though they’ve been significantly changed, established a culture of seeing drug use as a criminal matter rather than a health matter.” On that front, there’s now a full century of evidence.
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By Jeremiah Jones
Oregon has become the first state in the nation to decriminalize personal amounts of several drugs, as they seek to reduce mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes.
Two “landmark bills,” House Bill 378, and House Bill 2355, were approved by the Oregon legislature last week and aim to lift some restrictions on illicit drugs, reported The Washington Post.
House Bill 378 “reduces drug-related property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors,” whereas House Bill 2355 “decriminalize[s] at least six drugs, as long as the person doesn’t have any prior felonies or more than two prior drug convictions.
House Bill 378 passed 33-26 in the House, and 18-11 in the Senate. House Bill 2355 similarly passed 36-23 in the house, and 20-9 in the Senate. The bills will now move on to Governor Kate Brown for signature.
The bills would make Oregon the first state to decriminalize serious drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth, and MDMA when the drugs appear in small scale, “personal” quantities, not to be mistaken with amounts intended for distribution.
While the bills do not advocate for recreational drug use, they do decrease the legal consequences for those without prior recorded drug charges, a definite step in the right direction for the legal landscape of drug use.
The current legal system has been criticized for its criminalization of drugs, with many politicians noting that criminalization causes many with drug addiction or dependency issues to become continuously entangled in the criminal justice system when the label “felon” is applied to drug addicts or abusers.
The country as a whole has a major problem of mass incarceration of nonviolent people, with the highest prison population in the world, while claiming to have the most freedom. There has been a massive increase in incarceration since the start of the “war on drugs” in 1971.
The state that was the first to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis, is now moving to decriminalize small amounts of cocaine, heroin, meth and ecstasy.
In an unprecedented move, Oregon is on its way to becoming the first state to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy, while also lowering the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor in some drug-related cases.
Two groundbreaking bills were passed by the Oregon legislature this week, and will go to the state’s Democratic governor, Kate Brown, for approval. House Bill 3078 reduces drug-related property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. It passed in the state House with a vote of 33-26, and in the Senate with a vote of 18-11.
House Bill 2355 seeks to decriminalize at least six hard drugs, as long as the user does not have any prior felonies or more than two prior drug convictions. It passed in the state House with a vote of 36-23, and in the Senate with a vote of 20-9.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) told the Lund Report that he sees the criminalization of drugs as a major public policy failure, because it ignores the fact that addiction to certain drugs changes the physical structure of the brain, and should be treated as a health problem—as opposed to the current system, which labels users as felons, and sentences them to a life of rebounding in and out of the criminal justice system.
“We’ve got to treat people, not put them in prison,” Greenlick said. “It would be like putting them in the state penitentiary for having diabetes. … This is a chronic brain disorder and it needs to be treated this way.”
Both bills were supported by Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem), the longest-serving African-American woman in Oregon Senate history. During the Senate hearing, she silenced critics by referring to the current War on Drugs as “institutional racism.” The Lund Report noted that in addition to pushing for decriminalization, Winters has been fighting to decrease the prison population since 2011.
“There is empirical evidence that there are certain things that follow race. … We don’t like to look at the disparity in our prison system,” Winters said. “It is institutional racism. … We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.”
HR 2355 also seeks to cut down on racial profiling among police. As the Portland Tribune reported, police would be required “to collect data on race and other demographic information during law enforcement stops,” and the Criminal Justice Commission would then “have the responsibility to analyze the data to identify any trends showing officers have singled out people with specific qualities such as the color of their skin.”
While law enforcement has worked to derail attempts to reform prison sentencing in the past, HR 3078 includes a provision that tasks the Criminal Justice Commission with providing local jurisdictions with $7 million for diversion programs. The bill would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for property crimes, and increase the number of prior convictions necessary for a felony offense.
Rep. Jodi Hack (R-Salem) was one of the few Republicans to support HR 3078, and she told the Lund Report that she has received threats as a result. However, she noted that the opportunity to keep families together, and to send drug users to a diversion program for help, instead of prison, was what anchored her support.
Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis in 1973, before becoming one of the first states to legalize it for medicinal use in 1998, and then finally legalizing recreational use in 2015. This raises the question—if Oregon decriminalizes small amounts of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, will other states follow suit?
The push for ending the failed “War on Drugs” appears to be gaining traction, as the most popular medical journal in the United Kingdom, the British Medical Journal, argued in November 2016 that “laws against drug use have harmed people across the world, while stressing that drug addiction should be viewed as a health problem and police involvement must end.”
As The Free Thought Project reported last week, the United Nations is now calling for the worldwide decriminalization of drug use and possession. A statement from the World Health Organization called for “ending discrimination in health care settings,” as well as various “marginalized and stigmatized populations.”
An example of the power of decriminalization can be found in Portugal, a country that decriminalized all drugs in 2001. As a result, drugs usage rates have declined, and there are now approximately three drug overdose deaths for every 1 million citizens.
The Canadian government’s research arm is weeks away from proposing a nation-wide trial that could involve giving prescription heroin to drug users, one way of fighting the country’s growing opioid crisis. London could be one of the sites where the treatment is tested.
By Kate Dubinski
July 07, 2017
The Canadian government’s research arm is weeks away from proposing a nation-wide trial that could involve giving prescription heroin to drug users, one way of fighting the country’s growing opioid crisis.
London could be one of the sites where the treatment is tested because of this city’s high injection drug-use rates.
That idea has the support of Chris Mackie, the Middlesex-London Health Unit’s medical officer of health, who met with Canada’s health minister Thursday.
“There is evidence that injectable heroin works, and that it works better than other opioid maintenance therapy, and it should be more widely prescribed than it is now,” Mackie told CBC News.
Health Minister Jane Philpott was in London Thursday and met with health officials and politicians about the city’s alarming drug problem.
She has previously said giving people with severe addictions prescriptions for heroin could save lives. A clinic in Vancouver is the only one in North America to prescribe heroin.
There are thought to be 6,000 injection drug users in London, as many as in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. That’s more than the number of injection drug users in Toronto and Montreal, Mackie said.
A recent survey of injection drug users in London found that almost 75 per cent inject drugs in public places and that 65 per cent do so daily.
“People are dying of overdose, people are dying of HIV and Hepatitis C. It’s tragic, it’s totally unnecessary, and we want to try to prevent that,” Mackie said.
He explained Philpott said London would be the perfect site for a planned national study of treatment and harm reduction for opioid users.
The study is being developed by the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse, and will include communities across the country, said Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical advisor.
Details of what exactly the study will look at and which communities will participate are expected in the next few weeks, Sharma said.
“London, with the numbers in terms of substance use and misuse and overdoses, (the minister) was very much encouraging health researcher and institutes there to participate,” Sharma said.
“The idea of having a national program is about having more evidence.”
The study would be similar to, but not the same as, studies in Vancouver and Montreal which gave medical grade heroin or hydromorphone to drug users who had tried other treatments and failed.
Study participants used fewer street drugs and committed fewer crimes. Their lives became more stable because they weren’t using dirty needles or committing crimes to get a fix.
Funding for the national study would come from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), which is expected to receive the study proposal in the next few weeks. After CIHR gives it the go-ahead, the study would then have to be approved by Health Canada.
One of the things the national study could look at is community-specific treatment, prevention and harm reduction, Sharma said.
Philpott’s support of supervised injection sites and this nation-wide study has helped shape how Canadians — and Londoners — look at drug use and addiction, Mackie said.
“Would we benefit? Absolutely. If we have local evidence that this sort of thing works, or perhaps it doesn’t work for some reason in our community, that’s going to be really effective to shape practice,” he said.
“What we’ve seen is that people are really starting to understand why harm reduction is necessary. With the legalization of marijuana coming, people might be more open to this sort of approach.”
London is also continuing public consultations this fall about how many supervised injection sites the city might open, and where they would go.
Only days after the third highest-ranking member of the Vatican was charged with raping children, another scandal has been uncovered in Rome.
In 2014, Pope Francis admitted that “about two percent” or 1 in 50 Roman Catholic priests are pedophiles. He then promised solutions to the history of the church essentially condoning the horrid practice. However, in light of recent events, it appears the Pope is either unconcerned with or actually facilitating the abuse and hypocrisy of those within his holy ranks.
Within the last few weeks, scandal has plagued the Vatican as the third highest-ranking cardinal, George Pell, was charged with sex abuse against children in Austrailia. Now, on top of pedophilia, the Vatican can add drug running to its ever-expanding list of corruption.
The newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano — translated from Italian to The Face Daily — reported last week that Vatican police raided the apartment belonging to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ironically, that department is charged with, among other things, tackling clerical sexual abuse.
The occupant of the apartment is alleged by the paper to be the secretary of Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative texts and a key adviser to the Pope.
Coccopalmeria had reportedly just recommended the secretary, who was charged with running drugs, be promoted to bishop. That promotion is apparently on hold at this time.
During the raid, police allegedly walked in on a massive ‘drug-fueled gay orgy’ taking place, according to the report.
Here at the Free Thought Project, we feel that it is anyone’s right to do as they please with other consenting adults so long as all parties act voluntarily. If someone wants to host a ‘drug-fueled gay orgy,’ by all means, host it, as both the drug use and sex are voluntary. What consenting adults do behind closed doors is nobody’s business but their own.
That being said, however, the hypocrisy of the church in this instance is rife and certainly warrants scrutiny. Moreover, the ages of those involved in the raid have yet to be disclosed and — given the sordid history of the Catholic church — to say there may have been children present is not an excessive assumption.
Also, as Il Fatto Quotidiano reported, the corrupt clergymen were able to use their church jurisdiction to transport drugs freely without worrying about the Italian police. The luxury cars driven by the traffickers all had license plates and official Holy See plaques that allowed them to move about freely without being worried about getting caught.
The alleged sex ring has been the subject of recent protests in the area by residents who say they heard and saw many unusual comings and goings of people at all hours of the night.
As the Pope preaches reform and claims the church is ridding itself of problem members, it appears, according to all the recent revelations, that the exact opposite is happening. And, it appears, that it may even be deliberate.
According to a recent report out of the AP, Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope’s own advisers question.
It is no secret that the Vatican has been sweeping the issue of pedophilia under the rug for many years. In 2014, the UN issued a scathing report, blasting the Vatican for protecting pedophiles.
The U.N. committee’s main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, led the most intense grilling the Holy See has received on the issue, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Given the “zero tolerance” policy of the Vatican, she asked, why were there “efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?”
After observing the sheer number of recent alleged crimes committed by members of the church, the answer to that question could be quite simple; corruption within the church is so rampant that cover-ups have become the norm.
Alcohol is too often portrayed a good, harmless fun, but it kills more than 5,000 people annually, year in and year out.
“First of all, drugs – all drugs – can be used responsibly, or irresponsibly.
Prohibition doesn’t work. We should legalize (and regulate) all drugs.”
June 27, 2017
There has been, in recent months, intense attention paid to the devastation wrought by opioids and endless debate about the potential health impacts of legalizing marijuana.
Meanwhile, we continue to be willfully blind to the damage done by a deadly, damaging and commonly used drug: alcohol.
That opioids overdoses caused an estimated 2,000 deaths in Canada last year is front-page news, and rightfully so. The spike in mortality is troubling.
But alcohol kills more than 5,000 people annually, year in and year out. (And, of course, there’s tobacco, which kills 37,000 Canadians a year, but at least we discuss and act upon the health impacts of smoking.)
Alcohol is too often portrayed as good, harmless fun.
Yet a new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that 77,000 hospitalizations in Canada last year were entirely caused by alcohol – more than heart attacks. And that doesn’t include people treated in the ER for alcohol-related conditions and then released.
Alcohol kills and maims in a perversely diverse number of ways.
There are the acute problems such as alcohol poisoning (read: overdose), withdrawal and delirium. There are the long-term impacts such as cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, an increased risk of developing several cancers and damage to the fetus such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and exacerbation of mental illness. All told, alcohol negatively affects more than 200 health conditions.
Alcohol misuse fuels violence, sexual assault, suicide and traumatic injuries, and does immeasurable damage to families and relationships.
Impaired driving not only kills – 1,497 deaths last year, including 883 involving alcohol, according to MADD Canada – but it is the single most common criminal offence in Canada; 30 per cent of all criminal charges are related to alcohol abuse or misuse.
Needless to say, all this is costly.
Alcohol misuse cost the economy $14.6-billion – in lost productivity, direct health costs and enforcement. But note that this number is from 2002, the most recent year for which data is available; why we don’t routinely measure the health and economic impact of a drug used by 80 per cent of adults beggars belief.
Now, at this point in the litany of alcohol’s sins, the pot people will be chomping at the bit, claiming “cannabis never killed anyone.” Some even suggest that we would be better off if there were fewer drinkers and more tokers.
There are a number of lessons, good and bad, that can be taken from our experience with alcohol that can inform the legalization of marijuana and, to a lesser extent, the opioid-overdose crisis.