The group that backed a supervised heroin injection site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to improve addicts' health and safety has launched another project in the same neighbourhood: crack-pipe vending machines that allow users to acquire new, clean pipes for a quarter.
And like Insite – the supervised injection site that has become a fixture in the neighbourhood – the vending machines have put the Portland Hotel Society and its harm-reduction approach to drug addiction at loggerheads with the federal government's tough-on-drugs agenda.
"We disagree with promoters of this initiative," Steven Blaney, Canada's Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said in a statement Saturday, after weekend media reports about the vending machines.
"Drug use damages the health of individuals and the safety of our communities," Mr. Blaney added. "While the NDP and Liberals would prefer that doctors hand out heroin and needles to those suffering from addiction, this Government supports treatment that ends drug use, including limiting access to drug paraphernalia by young people."
Portland Hotel Society's Drug Users Resource Centre set up two vending machines in the Downtown Eastside about six months ago. Each machine holds about 200 pipes and they are restocked every five days.
"We packaged a crack pipe in polka dots and people were very intrigued by it and wondered what it was," Kailin See, the director of the Drug Users Resource Centre. "It was a hit right away."
The machines have had an impact on prices of the illicit equipment.
"This machine decreases the street value of a pipe," Ms. See said in a recent interview. "There was a time when pipes were scarce and there was a lot of violence around acquiring a pipe, so we decided to saturate the market."
In 2011, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority launched a free crack-pipe pilot program that distributed 60,000 pipes per year in the Downtown Eastside, driving prices down. Previously, pipes could cost as much as $10 – a price many users were not willing to pay.
"If a user has to choose between buying a rock for 10 dollars or buying a pipe, he is going to buy the rock," said Clyde Wright, a resident of the Downtown Eastside.
Mr. Wright has been smoking crack cocaine for 25 years and said he always uses his own pipe. If he doesn't have one, he can pick one up from the vending machine.
Makeshift pipes – fashioned from long glass tubes purchased from hardware stores – can have splintered glass that results in wounds and sores, making users more susceptible to diseases ranging from HIV to syphilis.
With high-quality shatterproof Pyrex pipes now available free through Vancouver Coastal Health or for 25 cents from the vending machines, crack users no longer have to turn to sharing pipes or buying them off the street.
"Studies have shown that individuals who use crack cocaine on a daily basis face all sorts of threats to their health, one of which is related to the use of substandard or shared pipes," Dr. M-J Milloy, a research co-ordinator with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said in a recent interview. "To give them better access to more pipes will be shown to be a good thing."
The Portland Hotel Society – also known as PHS Community Services – was a key player in launching Insite, which opened in 2003 and had to go to court to maintain an exemption from federal drug laws that allowed it to operate.
That court battle ended in 2011, when the Supreme Court of Canada ordered Health Canada to grant an exemption to Insite under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, saying in its ruling that "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."
Nadim Roberts is a freelance reporter.