Insite coordinator expects public to be slower to warm to crack-pipe distribution program

Photo by Parisa Azadi

Insite coordinator Russell Maynard said he expects some controversy over the recent decision by Vancouver Coastal Health to launch a pilot project that will distribute crack pipes to users. However, he said that the distribution of clean crack pipes would help prevent the spread of disease and address the reality of increased crack cocaine use in the city. 

The project will come into effect this fall and will oversee the distribution of $50,000 worth of new crack pipes, mouth-pieces and cleaning kits to smokers. The program is an expansion of Vancouver Coastal Health's harm-reduction approach to drug use and addiction.

Insite will be responsible for the distribution of pipes and supplies. Since its launch in 2003, Insite has been the subject of both praise and criticism for its safe injection services, which provide users with access to clean needles as well as treatment and addiction resources. Over the years, praise for the establishment has come to outweigh the voices of detractors as research has shown the positive impact of the site. 

Despite public support for Insite as a whole, Maynard said people could be slower to warm to the new pipe distribution initiative.

"My guess would be that people are not going to be as reflexively supportive because it seems like a much less complicated, a much less clinical situation," said Maynard.

He said that public tends to incorrectly perceive crack smoking as a non-urgent public health and safety issue, despite the high risks associated with the drug, which include increased temperature, blood pressure and cardiovascular problems, as well as chronic cuts, burns, blisters and open sores.

According to a 2008 report by the B.C. Harm Reduction Strategies and Services, around half of crack users do not inject drug. According to the report, “individuals who smoke crack may not be reached by other harm reduction initiatives such as needle exchange.”  

Maynard believes that among other factors, crack cocaine use has been growing due to its relative "affordability": according to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the average price ranges from $10 to $20 per crack rock.  

“It’s an inexpensive purchase, and it’s broken up into very small pieces, so you get whatever you can afford to purchase,” he said. “It’s a poor man’s drug, (but) not exclusively.”

Maynard hopes the new project will generate healthy debate and raise awareness to help the public learn about the drug and its effects.

The project comes on the heels of a recent study published by the University of Victoria that found 60 per cent of crack smokers in Vancouver share pipes. The study also found that sharing pipes increases risk of exposure to infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV.

According to a study published last December by the BC Centre for Disease control, the project will help reduce costs to taxpayers for providing health care to drug users who suffer from illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis C. The study found that health care costs associated with crack smokers who suffer from Hepatitis C is between $1,850 and $6,000 per person a year.

A source at Welcome Home Society said that while he does not object to the new program, he's not convinced it's an effective use of public resources in pursuit of long-term treatment and abstinence.

Welcome Home is a long-term treatment and care facility based in Surrey. Users who register with the facility receive housing, meals, clothing, occupational training, legal advice and counseling throughout the treatment process for addiction. Apart from the $387 registration fee, the cost of the program is covered by the John Volken Foundation. Volken is the founder of both the society and the United Furniture Warehouse. 

Maynard hopes the pilot project is a step towards the establishment on a safe inhalation site. A safe inhalation site would provide crack smokers with the same safety, supervision, access to medical treatment and addiction treatment resources that Insite currently provides to intravenous drug users.

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