Pubdate: Tue, 24 Jul 2007
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen
Note: David Reevely is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.


Sometimes you run across a story that's too good to check. Like the
one about the crack dealer with a stack of city-issued crack pipes,
handing them out like Happy Meal toys to his customer-victims.

Everyone closely involved in the debate over the city's clean-pipe
program has heard this tale in one of several forms. One has a dealer
selling city-issued pipes "pre-loaded" with a hit of the drug that's
become much more visible on Ottawa's downtown streets over the past
year. What they all have in common is that they fed the notion that
the $8,000-a-year public-health program was helping dealers market
their product -- and it's essentially that idea that got city council
to vote to stop giving the pipes out.

The thing about stories that are too good to check is that before you
do anything with them, you're supposed to check them. Unless, perhaps,
you're in politics.

Councillor Maria McRae voted against the clean-pipe program. In the
council meeting where the decision was made, she put the Happy Meal
story to Dr. David Salisbury, the city's chief medical officer of health.

Ottawa's public-health unit, which has been running the crack-pipe
program in an effort to cut HIV and hepatitis contagion among addicts,
doesn't know of a case where dealers were distributing city pipes.

In an interview, McRae said she couldn't quite recall where she'd
first heard the story, but had the idea that perhaps it had come in a
closed-door briefing from Ottawa police officers. McRae promised to
hunt for the reference in her notes and documents, but didn't return a
follow-up call.

Councillor Georges Bedard, whose Rideau-Vanier ward is Ground Zero for
the crack problem (and is where I live), says he's heard the story,
too. Does he believe it's true? "I wouldn't be surprised," he said
over the phone. "I know that there were large quantities of pipes
given on occasion -- if you came in asking for three, four, five at a
time, you didn't get a lot of argument." Bedard is on vacation and
missed the vote on the program, but said he would have voted to kill
it. Shelter workers and other people who aren't health professionals
have been giving the pipes out too freely, Bedard said, and when you
see used city-issued pipes littering lawns in Vanier, something's gone
wrong. On the other hand, he said the clean pipes are "probably
necessary" for public-health reasons, and also he doesn't think they
contributed to more people smoking crack.

Anyway, try the police, both McRae and Bedard advised.

Police spokeswoman Carole Lavigne said she's heard the Happy Meal
story, but couldn't corroborate it with the police's drug unit. They
raid drug dens and bust dealers full-time.

"They have confirmed for me that they have never found large numbers
of pipes," Lavigne said. Individual crack-users are found with the
kits all the time, she said, but a stash in the possession of a dealer
- -- no.

What about pipes pre-loaded with crack -- does the drug squad know
about that? "They have not come across the situation," Lavigne said.
"They are under the assumption that if that was the case, they would
possibly have heard about it, so that's not a situation that they have
come across. Although it doesn't give us an answer whether anyone at
the Ottawa police may have ever encountered this, it tells us this is
not an issue that is rampant to the point where it would have made its
way to the drug unit." The story is so plausible nobody's willing to
dismiss it. That's always the problem with a rumour: nobody can prove
that a thing never happened. Maybe it happened. It could have
happened. Who's to say it definitely didn't? Science doesn't work this
way, and law-enforcement isn't supposed to, either. Scientists and
police officers -- good ones -- act on what they can prove, not on
what other people cannot disprove.

The evidence the politicians had in hand was a study by a University
of Ottawa specialist in social epidemiology, Lynne Leonard, showing
that while crack use went up after the pipe program came in, wildly
dangerous needle-drug use had plunged. (So has the street price of
crack, which might have something to do with why people are smoking it
instead of shooting up.) And councillors had their own Dr. Salisbury
pleading with them to keep the program. And they had their new chief
of police, Vernon White, saying he thinks the issue needs more study.

But still they voted to kill it.

A stronger argument for taking away city council's public-health
responsibilities is hard to imagine.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake