Spider Robinson, the author of 35 books of science fiction, knows about moulding the present into a possible future. With his big idea, the Bowen Island resident now working as writer in residence at the Vancouver Public Library does the same for troubled Main and Hastings, the heart of the Downtown Eastside.
Tell me about your big idea.
"We eliminate Vancouver's biggest and most shameful eyesore at the corner of Main and Hastings or, as it is more commonly known, the intersection of Pain and Lastings. Try what they tried in the TV series The Wire. Make drugs available to anyone who wants them under controlled, safe conditions. Let's handle the war on drugs the way the U.S. typically handles real wars that have dragged on forever without achieving their objectives: Declare victory and go home."
Would this be just something for this particular part of Vancouver?
Phasing it in will be tricky. When you start small, it's hard to scale up from there, but they're trying it right now in places like Zurich. It's not all of Switzerland, but in Zurich, heroin addicts can go get injectable heroin on prescription and they can get oral methadone if they want to wean themselves off heroin, which startling numbers seem to want to do, and they have got needle exchange and safe shooting galleries. Medicalized drug use has removed the glamour and they say the number of new drug users in Zurich has been falling steadily since they did this about a decade ago.
How would the provision of drugs in such a manner eliminate the things you don't like, the things that you find distressing about Main and Hastings?
It wouldn't eliminate the need to take drugs. It just seems to me that if we are going to run a society which is so painful to live in that a significant number of our citizens need heroin to get through a day, it seems to me the least we could do is make it available to them as conveniently and cheaply as possible since it was our fault in the first place. People don't take drugs for fun. It doesn't work that way.
There are concerns and consequences of illegal drug use in various parts of British Columbia. Why try this at Main and Hastings?
We just had the Olympics up here and the one thing you kept hearing over and over was people would say many wonderful things about Vancouver and how amazed they were at our beauty, but always Main and Hastings would come up. Always, people would talk about this open-air eyesore, worse than anything they had come across.
How feasible do you think it would be to expect policy-makers to embrace this kind of solution? There's a debate about even Insite, even providing a place for the safe use of illegal drugs, never mind outright providing illegal drugs.
Unfortunately, the downside with the scheme is that we would probably have to go to war with our own federal government and that of the United States. But I don't think we would end up having to go to war with many provincial or state governments because most of them are discovering they can't afford to continue this stupid, drug war and they don't really want to.
Would rehab and guidance in the proper, safe use of drugs, with clean needles and that sort of thing, be a part of this?
Absolutely. That's the way they work it in Zurich. You get counselling if and as you want it. If you would like to sidestep into methadone, which is a much gentler, less devastating kind of high, that can be arranged. It's clear that if you put effort into it, it works. Besides Switzerland, they're trying it in England, in Belgium, in Germany, in Spain and in the Netherlands, and in all of these places, the rate of drug use goes down; and the rate of violent crime goes way down.
How would it work? Someone walks into a station and says, 'I'd like some cocaine,' or 'I would like some crack.' How would it work from there?
Don't look at me. I'm the One Big Idea guy, remember? Designing the program, I leave to experts. I just suggest that there are such experts and they have been working on designing such pilot programs all around the world and most of them seem to be working out pretty good.
Take me three to five years after the first day your big idea becomes a reality.
I see an awful lot of formerly wasted, hopeless human beings who, every day, were putting in to the hustle to get their fix as much enterprise and energy as would be required to start seven or eight small businesses. All those guys will be rehabilitated. All those women will be back off the street and respecting themselves again. I see a more compassionate world full of people stunned to discover they actually have value and they actually have competence and they actually have a future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ideas on addiction
Aspects of Spider Robinson's scenario of handing out illegal drugs in the Downtown Eastside have been tested, though nowhere near the scale the B.C. author is proposing.
The four-year SALOME study to provide 322 chronic addicts with heroin or a legal substitute, Hydromorphone, has been on the launching pad, but is awaiting Health Canada approval for the importation and distribution of heroin.
SALOME stands for the Study to Assess Longer-term Opiod Medication Effectiveness, and has been designed as an effort to determine whether heroin addicts will accept an alternative narcotic legally available in Canada.
The research is being conducted by scientists affiliated with the University of British Columbia, operating out of St. Paul's Hospital.
SALOME is a successor project to the North American Opiate Medication Initiative - or NAOMI - which provided heroin and methadone to people with opiate addictions to test treatment options as part of a harm-reduction strategy. The aim was to determine whether providing subjects with heroin in a controlled clinic setting would lead to positive outcomes that included reduced use of illicit drugs, lower criminal activity and increased employment. The research was based out of a storefront clinic in the Downtown Eastside.
The Insite safe-injection site in the Downtown Eastside, opened in 2003, provides addicts with a safe place to use drugs they obtain from other sources, but does not distribute those drugs. However, it has made formal applications to Health Canada to do so. Insite was the first public legal site of its kind in North America.