Crack pipes delivered to addicts

Lutecia Whitehead holds a crack pipe provided by the Mobile Needle Exchange in an alleyway on East Hastings. All photos by Parisa Azadi.

As Downtown Eastside residents await the arrival of clean crack pipes at Insite, workers from the PHS Vancouver Mobile Needle Exchange deliver tens of thousands of clean crack pipes to drug users in area. 

"It's like distributing condoms," said Mark Townsend, co-founder and executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, which runs the needle exchange program. "There are studies showing that HIV and Hepatitis C is higher in the drug-addicted population, and that's how it spreads, from one population to another."

The program's black safari van is on the road for an exhausting 20 hours a day, providing free condoms, crack pipes, needles and referrals to detox centres. The van responds to calls from people who wish for delivery of crack pipes or needles, and also makes stops in alleyways to provide clean materials and needles to drug users. It also picks up and disposes of used needles everywhere in Vancouver upon request.

In addition to the Downtown Eastside, the van helps distribute needles and crack pipes to people throught the city. 

"It isn't just people in the Downtown Eastside that uses drugs," said Townsend. "There are people who call discretely because they're ashamed or embarrassed so that they can live for another day -- dead people obviously can't detox. Wherever people are, we go and we help educate them and refer them to health services."

Around 20,000 crack pipes are distributed monthly, according to Portland Hotel Society co-founder and executive director Mark Townsend. 


Clean pipes to prevent risk of infection 

The crack pipes cost the Portland Hotel Society around 53 cents each (Townsend said they could be far cheaper if the society were allowed to buy directly from manufacturers). The average cost of a new crack pipe on the street is $5, which causes many poorer crack smokers to share pipes or continue to use broken ones that cause cuts and injuries. A cheap one made of the holder for single-stem flowers costs around $2, but breaks easily.

Townsend said that distributing free crack pipes stop the spread of disease not only by preventing the sharing of pipes, but also to stop risky behavior.

"Marginal women may turn tricks for $5 to buy a glass pipe," said Townsend, noting that an increase of disease in the Downtown Eastside population will eventually spread to the rest of Vancouver.

"It affects not only affects (drug users), it affects all of us," he said. "There is a vast cost to treating these things, which are preventable by simple precautionary measures."

Crack pipe controversy 
For Townsend, the negative comments and controversy in the media surrounding the recent news of crack pipe distribution at the safe injection site are due to lack of information. 

"News about the crack pipes got into the public with no context, no understanding," he said. "To people who don't know about it, it will sound crazy. But just like the safe injection site, when more people are educated about it, they will support it."

Last week, 24 Hours columnist Kathryn Marshall strongly criticized the program, arguing that the city was doing enough to help drug users: 

"Supporters of this program talk as if crack cocaine users were somehow being unjustly deprived by the fact that only mouthpieces and not the entire crack pipe have been given away under existing programs," she wrote.

Townsend objected, arguing, that "for people in dire straits, it's better to give them one thing to use rather than say, here's one bit, now go get the rest from somewhere else."  

Nick Esson holds a crack pipe donated by the Vancouver Mobile Needle Exchange on East Hastings.

A small part of the solution

"This is a small extension of a massively comprehensive approach," said Townsend, who believes that in addition to crack pipes and needles, free HIV tests should be available at pharmacies, much like pregnancy tests. 

"We're glad they're distributing, but this is really just a just a really teeny thing."

Mariner Janes, a coordinator for the needle exchange program, said that even when the crack pipes arrive at Insite, he foresees that demand for the mobile distribution will remain steady.

For more information, see the website


The Vancouver Mobile needle Exchange recovers and safely disposes used needles. Mariner Janes from the Vancouver Mobile Needle Exchange (right) picks up a container of used needles from the Manager of the Granville Residence building James Kane (left).

A Downtown Eastside resident smokes crack using a pipe donated by the Vancouver Mobile Needle Exchange in a back alley on East Hastings.

In addition to crack pipes, the Mobile Needle Exchange van distributes free condoms, needles and provides users with referrals to detox.

Downtown Eastside resident Heather Norris

Clean crack pipes will be available at Insite, the safe injection site on 139 East Hastings street.

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