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Feature: It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's... Methadone Man? Harm Reduction at the Vancouver Olympics

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #620)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

The Vancouver Olympic Games are getting underway today, and along with thousands of athletes and an estimated half a million visitors from around the world, the harm reduction community will also be there. A consortium of local, national, and international harm reduction and advocacy groups have crafted a campaign called SafeGames 2010 to bring harm reduction theory and practice to the forefront during the Olympic games.

In addition to bringing harm reduction messages to the Olympic masses, the campaign may help serve as a corrective to the drop-in international media, who come to Vancouver for the Olympics, then look around for local stories to cover, and then discover the city's Downtown Eastside with shock and dismay. The Downtown Eastside is home to one of the largest and densest concentrations of hard drug users in the hemisphere and has the appearance of a Skid Row. But it is also home to the innovative harm reduction and other drug policies that have put Vancouver on the cutting edge of drug reform.

Led by Vancouver's Keeping the Door Open Society, SafeGames 2010 will provide an array of resources, including tips on safe sex and reducing the harm associated with drug and alcohol consumption, in a bid to keep the Olympic community safe and protected. The campaign has the added benefit of highlighted Vancouver's progressive stance on drug policy and harm reduction.

"Vancouver is a community that respects its citizens for who they are," said Gillian Maxwell, head of Keeping the Door Open and project director for the SafeGames 2010 project. "Over the last decade, Vancouver has paved the way for some of its most marginalized community members, including people who use drugs, are in the sex trade, are living with HIV/AIDS, and those with mental health issues and other concerns, to be treated with respect and dignity."

The campaign kicked off Wednesday with a press conference featuring Maxwell, several Vancouver and British Columbia officials, and a trio of caped and costumed superheroes: Methadone Man, Buprenorphine Babe, and Captain Condom. The superheroes will be among the 200 volunteers handing out 20,000 "safe kits" containing condoms, lube, hand heaters, glow sticks, and DVDs, as well as information about the sex trade in the city and referrals to local service providers to people attending Olympic events and visiting the city's sure-to-be bustling night life districts.

The campaign's web site also provides a range of local resources and contacts to connect visitors with harm reduction services available in the area, such as the city's InSite safe injection site, the only one in North America. The web site also provides informational videos and handouts, as well as information on various SafeGames members.

Vancouver Police Inspector Scott Thompson told the press conference that while Vancouver police don't support drug use, they do support SafeGames 2010. "Unfortunately, people are going to engage in activities like this. And the goal would be that when they do that, we want them to be safe when they do it."

This isn't the first time harm reductionists have worked the Olympics. During the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, harm reductionists led by SafeGames campaign founder Luciano Colonna undertook a similar program there. But the campaign is only getting better, said Colonna.

"Our partners -- from HIM, which works to strengthen the health of gay men, to the SafeVibe campaign of Women Against Violence Against Women, to InSite, have been working overtime to respond to the harm reduction needs of those coming here for the games," he said.

"This is harm reduction for the mainstream," said Maxwell. "We will be outreach workers, going out in teams to bar and party areas and handing out the safe kits. There are a whole range of things that people do that can be risky, and we say do it safely. What I like most about the campaign is that we are explaining harm reduction in many different ways, and you can't really argue with any of them. We are going to be getting out some very good public health messages," Maxwell said.

SafeGames isn't the only one doing some harm reduction work for the Vancouver Olympics. The city of Vancouver has announced it will hand out 100,000 condoms on its own.

For Maxwell, SafeGames is not just about harm reduction at the Games. It's also about educating people about the Downtown Eastside and what goes on there. "Every city has that sort of thing," she said, "but ours is very open and big, with thousands of people. It could be hard to take if you're from a different culture, but we're thinking it's a great opportunity to educate people. We're even talking about doing some tours of the Downtown Eastside."

As the countdown to the Olympics draws to end, Maxwell could feel the excitement building. "A lot of people were against spending the money it costs to have the Olympics here, and I'm not really into it myself, but there is a real buzz on downtown now," she said. "There are all these young athletes, and this is their dream, and here they are. You can't help but notice the vibe."

And maybe, thanks to SafeGames 2010, some of those athletes and the crowds who come to cheer them on won't be able to help but notice the harm reduction messages and messengers circulating among them.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


maxwood (not verified)

1. Now that a worldwide public has been forcefully reminded (Saturday morning) that Olympics are not Safe Games, it is time for a bigtime Harm Reduction: a movement to prohibit Olympics worldwide, all that sitting of multitudes watching an elite few perform recklessly, all that beerswilching and rooting for one guy or team to win by making another guy or team lose, etc.

2. The world's best motivation against anyone taking a drug (drag) overdose is for that person to be engaged in creative imaginative work that utilizes all multitaskish talents and provides an incentive to live long enough to see the project succeed.3. If there were time, I'd wish for the safe kits for endangered Vancouverians to include a long-tube one-hitter (single-toke utensil for 25-mg. servings of pre-sifted herb) to eliminate hot burning carbon monoxide overdose $igarettes, joints, spliffs, blunts which produce smoking-related pathology popularly blamed on cannabis.4. Porched behind or basemented under cafes, dispensaries, etc., set up a woodworking shop where mmj users and others can develop their hands-on creative talents and life-continuation incentives, making items needed in the new economics such as light carpentry, esp. thrift-store and utility room shelving, tool handles, education block toys, music instruments.

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 5:31pm Permalink
Oldtimer (not verified)

This is merely a golden opportunity for those with the Harm Reduction bent (legalizers) to pad their junkie industry stats by handing out large quantities of drug and sex gear while promoting their own messaging about what a great job that they are doing. If more energy was spent on drug education and treatment instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator, we would be much further ahead in saving people from illness and death. Maxwell is a member of the ‘2020 Group’ (and ‘Keeping the Door Open’):

"This group is about trying to end prohibition, and we would like to get it done by 2020," said Gillian Maxwell, head of Keeping the Door Open.

These stunts never cease to amaze me. Maxwell wants to runs tours through the Downtown Eastside (our Skid Road) to show what? Oh look at all the people we saved! Too bad they are missing arms and legs, let alone their human potential. The drug injection site boasts over 400 drug OD’s per year without allowing a single death. In proper treatment, there are no OD’s let alone any illness or death. After 20 years of harm reduction, you may have a live addict and most likely a sick one, but still you will have an addict. After but a few years of decent treatment, you will have a far better chance of having a healthy and productive member of society. I say that the rich get treatment while the poor get Harm Reduction. Maxwell’s approach to the problem simply doesn’t make any sense to me, although my goal is not to legalize all drugs. True compassion lies not in giving an addict want he/she wants, rather their lives and human potential is dependent on society providing them what they need- decent treatment. That is the mark of true compassion. But that would mean that we would have to be judgmental about their drug use (not WHO they are as people)- what it is costing themselves, their families, and society at large. This lack of judgment flies in the face of the HR philosophy, as ‘non-judgment’ is a growth factor in the junkie industry.

Mon, 02/15/2010 - 8:00pm Permalink
DIRTYJERZMAMI (not verified)

"treatment" is a long term solution with a 12% success rate at the HIGHEST, in the US at least, but the rates are around the 10-15% mark everywhere that has drug addiction problems. Addiction is a extremely complicated problem and it cant just be solved and ended by givin addicts rehab and that type of thing. the TRULY compassionate thing to do is work with them in the reality of the way they are living. You cant just say "teenagers shouldnt have sex, so dont give them condoms." becuz they still will have sex and will spread diseases w/.out the proper education and help. Same thing here. addicts dont just quit. you cant just put them in a program and they come out happy and healthy again. I been thru it, so i can speak firsthand how it is to live life addicted to heroin. you are oversimplifying.

Treatment as you seem to think is the ultimate solution, aint a "here and now" solution. While we wait for treatment to work, while we wait for the addicts to finally be READY to recieve treatment (becuz if you didnt know--no addict will ever get clean til he or she is truly ready , and until that time, all money spent on treatment will be a complete waste) they are dying and gettin infected with HIV and hepatitis and all kind of things and living with many problems that can be prevented. we need solutions for RIGHT NOW, that deal with the immediate reality, cuz it may be too late by the time the long term solutions is figured out and put into action. you cant deny the problem that is here, and it aint easy to fix it on such a large level, you just cant do it. but you can minimize the harm that is involved with the problem until we can figure a better way to help it.

Like i said, i am a ex addict, and when i was using, nothing could stop me. I went to treatment many times and it never "took". It didnt help me, it didnt make me want to quit. Obviously you never been addicted, becuz treatment aint the answer. It dont just magically solve addiction. It aint a curable problem, but it is help-able, and thats the whole idea of harm reduction.

If a junkie aint gonna stop usin til he or she is good and well ready, might aswell give them the ability to use in a safe way until they ready to quit for good. You cant just say " screw them til they want to live MY way" you have to work with the reality of the way things are, not the way they "should" be.

Wed, 02/17/2010 - 12:59am Permalink

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