Pubdate: Wed, 12 Mar 2003
Source: Vancouver Courier (CN BC)
Copyright: 2003 Vancouver Courier
Author: Mike Howell


An increase in crack cocaine smokers, a sparse heroin supply and police 
enforcement could be reasons why the city's largest needle exchange 
distributed about 700,000 fewer needles to addicts last year than in 2000.

Judy McGuire, manager of health outreach programs for the Downtown Eastside 
Youth Activities Society, said distribution of needles from the society's 
vans and centres dropped from 3.4 million in 2000 to 2.7 million last year.

"It's the biggest drop we've seen in years," said McGuire, noting her staff 
have told her more people are smoking crack cocaine, crystal 
methamphetamine, and some heroin.

Police, health workers and drug addicts acknowledge the increase in crack 
smokers in the Downtown Eastside, but note injection heroin use is still 
prevalent, despite the sparse supply of heroin.

McGuire, however, points out the society's figures for last year don't 
include several weeks of needle exchanges by the Vancouver Area Network of 
Drug Users (VANDU), whose table-top service outside the Carnegie Centre has 
been greatly affected by police enforcement.

Jim Jones, supervisor of the table-top exchange, said volunteers were 
distributing 1,200 needles a shift-which runs from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.-but 
noticed a 50 per cent drop once police beefed up enforcement last fall.

The ongoing enforcement, including the parking of marked police cruisers in 
the area and uniformed cops standing on the corner of Main and Hastings, 
has shifted the open-air drug market west.

As a result, VANDU closed its exchange last Tuesday and has turned to 
distributing needles in the streets to reach addicts afraid of approaching 
the table, Jones said.

Donald MacPherson, the city's drug policy coordinator, noted about 150 
people a month in the province are being prescribed methadone, which may be 
a factor in reduced needle use.

Though a reduction in needle use can be seen as positive, MacPherson points 
out addicts could have simply moved to other parts of the Lower Mainland.

"If we're displacing the problem to other jurisdictions where there isn't a 
needle exchange or it isn't a very accessible needle exchange, then we're 
in fact putting people in harm's way," said MacPherson, noting 16 people 
have died of illicit drug overdoses in Vancouver in the first two months of 
the year, six more than last year.

Insp. Kash Heed, in charge of Vancouver police's drug squad, believes 
long-time heroin addicts might have switched to smoking crack or heroin 
because of the risks of contracting a blood-borne disease or overdosing 
from injecting the drug. "But I wouldn't hang my hat on just one 
theory-it's likely a combination of factors," Heed said.

Smoking heroin brings its own problems. Currently, police and health 
agencies are investigating why three people died and seven suffered varying 
levels of brain damage in connection with smoking heroin.

Dean Wilson, president of VANDU, attributes the decrease in needle use to 
the network's ongoing focus on getting addicts to kick their habits. The 
quality of heroin, which is low, may also have played a role in addicts 
switching drugs, he said.

But Wilson is worried addicts still using needles could become the city's 
next overdose statistics when higher-purity heroin hits the streets. 
Hundreds of addicts died in the mid-1990s after Vancouver was flooded with 
high purity heroin.

"I don't want to repeat history," Wilson said.
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