Pubdate: Tue, 18 Jul 2017
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2017 Times Colonist
Author: Camille Bains
Page: C1


Vancouver drug users' support group spearheaded first safe-injection
site in North America

A copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms graces a wall
around the corner from where a woman lies on the floor as a needle
full of heroin is injected into her neck.

She rises quickly, sweeps her long brown hair over one shoulder and
sits on a chair as a man is handed a needle by another woman also
wanting his help at an overdose prevention site located at the office
of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

Vancouver Coastal Health has operated the site since December, but the
peer support group known as VANDU began in 1997 with political
activists who wanted drug users to demand health services when sharing
of needles in the Downtown Eastside led to skyrocketing hepatitis C
rates and the highest HIV prevalence of the AIDS virus in the western

These days, the painkiller fentanyl has been implicated in hundreds of
opioid overdose deaths in the neighbourhood and around British
Columbia, the epicentre of an ongoing crisis in Canada.

Hugh Lampkin, vice-president of VANDU, stands at the door as the first
woman walks out about five minutes after her injection, past an
attendant trained in CPR and administration of the overdose-reversing
drug naloxone.

"Right now the most popular thing is probably heroin, but there's
side," Lampkin says, referring to crystal meth, also called jib.

"We have a horn, and if somebody goes down they call me," the former
drug user says. "With the fentanyl that's around now I try to tell
people when I'm training them, 'Just look to see if people are
staggering or they're slurring their words.' "

The not-for-profit organization that is marking its 20th anniversary
this month is also home to several sub groups.

They include the British Columbia Association of People on Methadone
and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, which on this day
is holding its weekly meeting by remembering people who've died of
fentanyl overdoses.

"Let this moment of silence be for them and for many more," says the
group's secretary-treasurer Shelda Kastor, as ambulance sirens wail
past the building.

Ann Livingston, a founding member of VANDU, says the group's first
meeting was at a park 20 years ago.

Livingston says stigmatized drug users were being treated as "less
than human" so she used her organizing skills to bring them together,
eventually helping to create a group led by the people who best know
the issues affecting them.

They soon began reporting desperate users grinding up drywall into a
powder and selling it as drugs or repackaging used needles, Livingston

"It was a real place for action and that was my job, constantly, to
have my mind blown over and over again."

"It's hard to describe how hated drug users are and how disregarded
their lives were," she says of the years when 27 per cent of injection
drug users in the impoverished neighbourhood became infected, says the
Vancouver-based Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

Victories that involved VANDU members include the distribution of
clean needles and the 2003 opening of Insite, North America's first
supervised injection site in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

Even after Insite opened, VANDU formed an injection support team of
members who helped users injecting drugs in alleys and took the most
destitute to the group's office.

"You see someone in an alley, they've got blood streaming down their
arm, their rig is blocking and they've got their dope in there and
they can't get it into their body," Livingston says, adding the
unsanctioned injection site at VANDU was eventually shut down,
prompting her to send users to her van for two months before Vancouver
Coastal Health threatened to cut off funding.

The key to VANDU's success has been its large membership, which now
includes 3,000 people, regular meetings allowing volunteers to learn
how to read spread sheets, stretch limited funding dollars and
participate on a board of directors that includes current and former
drug users, Livingston says.

The fentanyl crisis has created an even greater need for treatment
options for people who are ready to take that step, but
quality-controlled drugs are needed for others, Livingston says.

"People need to demand, and say, 'I am getting safe drugs from you. I
have an opioid use disorder, it's a diagnosable illness, I'm in need
of medical care and I'm guaranteed that medical care. To not give it
to me is discrimination.' There's a pile of dead bodies to prove what
I'm saying."

Dr. Thomas Kerr, associate director of the B.C. Centre on Substance
Use, says he was an HIV researcher in 2000 when he was "blown away" by
the political activism of Livingston and her now-deceased co-founder
Bud Osborn, who promoted addiction as a health issue.

"This idea of drug users self-organizing and coming up with
drug-user-led solutions seemed revolutionary to me, and I immediately
visited VANDU," Kerr says, adding he soon learned that people at
highest risk of disease and death were being reached by the
organization and missed by conventional public-health programs.

"The thing about VANDU is they're usually two or three steps ahead of
the bureaucracy and often lead the way in innovations and delivery of
programs and helping initiate policy," he says.

"VANDU is known around the world as one of the biggest and most
impactful drug user groups," he says.

"There may have been a time when people rolled their eyes at the sight
of VANDU members showing up to an important meeting and demanding
attention but now people are actually inviting VANDU to the table and
recognizing them as essential players."
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