The Western Hemisphere's first safe injection site has opened in Vancouver, BC, but not under official auspices. While in recent months, officials at all levels have reached a general agreement to open a safe injection site for the drug-injecting population centered in the Downtown Eastside as part of the city's comprehensive, two-year-old Four Pillars plan (prevention, treatment, enforcement, harm reduction), delays in winning approval for a safe injection site at the federal level have stalled its opening. That was bad enough for community activists and users' groups who had worked for years to create such services, but when Vancouver police swooped down with a massive and continuing enforcement effort early last month, activists decided they could wait no longer for the government to act.
"We got tired of seeing deadline after deadline pass," said Robert Weppler, president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (http://www.vandu.org), "and still no safe injection site. We had an agreement with the city that they would bring in additional police after a safe injection site opened, but the police didn't wait," he told DRCNet. "Instead, they put 44 officers into the neighborhood -- they're still there -- so a coalition of community groups pushed forward to force open a site."
The coalition includes VANDU, the Pivot Legal Aid Society, the Harm Reduction Society, the Housing Action Committee and the Anti-Poverty Committee, all neighborhood groups, said Weppler, "as well as others that wish to remain anonymous for the time being."
The site has been operating for nearly a month, said Weppler. "We're seeing about 15 to 30 users a night. The facility is staffed by a nurse, who doesn't want to be named right now. We have a front room that operates as a drop-in center where people can come in and warm up, and a smaller room in the back where we do needle exchanges and safe injections."
While unprecedented in the Americas, safe injection sites, where users can inject under medical supervision in a clean, safe environment, as well as receive access to or information about other services, have been in operation in various European cities for much of the last decade, where they have been found to be effective in reducing drug overdoses and the transmission rates of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Vancouver officials, in fact, recently visited safe injection sites in Zurich as part of their effort to win approval for a Vancouver site from the Canadian Health Ministry.
The Downtown Eastside safe injection is illegal, but Vancouver police have so far left the place alone. "That an illegal safe injection site would open is obviously a concern," said Vancouver police spokesperson Constable Anne Drennan, "but it's not a high priority. Our focus is dealers, not addicts. We are very disappointed that those groups did this now, because we are supporters of the officially-supervised safe injection site application that has been forwarded to Health Canada," she told DRCNet.
"We are monitoring the site, but we will not be taking any immediate action," Drennan added. "The mayor and the chief of police will meet next week to discuss various options to respond to the site."
Ironically, Mayor Larry Campbell was in Ottawa this week on a trip seeking funding for the official safe injection site. Like his predecessor, Philip Owen, Campbell has been a supporter of such sites, although he has been strongly criticized by some community groups involved in the current site for not moving fast enough or providing resources for the treatment, prevention, and harm reduction pillars of the Four Pillars program.
"It's more like one giant pillar and three twigs," quipped VANDU's Weppler.
The giant pillar, of course, would be law enforcement. And the massive police presence since April 7 has certainly had an impact. On the corner of Main and Hastings, previously the pulsing epicenter of the hemisphere's largest open air drug market, at times there were as many police as people. The crowds of buyers and sellers sometimes reaching the hundreds were gone. The prostitutes had vanished. Only small knots of people huddled together on the street.
"We think we've been very successful," said Constable Drennan. "We've arrested 135 on warrants developed out of undercover buys that took place in March, and we've reclaimed that block. There has been some displacement," Drennan conceded, "but much less than we expected."
Still, the balloon effect was obvious to even the casual observer. The addicts had not left; they only melted into the shadows. The dealers had merely migrated a few blocks west on Hastings, closer to touristy Gastown, as well as onto Granville Avenue. And the hookers had moved a block or two north of Hastings, to ply their trade on darker and less-trafficked side streets.
"That's creating a more dangerous situation for them," said Wanda Villanueva, a counselor at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, "but on the Downtown Eastside these women are targeted by police, thrown up against walls and harassed," she said. "We are worried that at the end of this we'll only have more missing women."
And while Constable Drennan said police targeted dealers, not addicts, Annabel Webb of Justice for Girls told the Vancouver Sun a "police state" had been imposed on the neighborhood. "How else would one describe the extreme police presence, the mass searches, interrogations and arbitrary detentions, or the suspension of liberty and mobility rights of the residents?"
That seemed to be the case last Friday as teams of uniformed police trolled for suspicious characters, occasionally searching one and emptying his bags onto the ground. "Yeah, it sucks, man," one local told DRCNet. "They rousted me a couple of days ago -- didn't find anything, though. But now there's more rip-off artists down here, you don't know if you're getting the good stuff," he complained.
And if the Vancouver police officially stand behind Mayor Campbell and the Four Pillars policy, that attitude hasn't necessarily percolated down to all of the officers on the beat. Asked about safe injection sites as he patrolled an alleyway off Hastings, one Vancouver officer likened them to "giving alcoholics their booze everyday." He could support treatment and prevention, he said, "but helping them shoot up? You've got to be kidding."
Meanwhile, Mayor Campbell and the city of Vancouver await approval from Health Canada for an official safe injection site. That's great, said VANDU's Weppler. "We'll shut ours down as soon as the legal one is up and running. There is no difference between theirs and ours, except one -- we're open."