HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Up Close And Personal
Pubdate: Tue, 07 Dec 1999
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: The Vancouver Sun 1999
Contact:  200 Granville Street, Ste.#1, Vancouver BC V6C 3N3
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Author: Ian Mulgrew


For the police in Vancouver's Odd Squad, making a film about drug addiction
was a noble effort. But what message are they really sending?

For the past year, several members of the Vancouver police department have
been moonlighting as film-makers in the city's poorest neighbourhood. When
not on duty, they have performed numerous upbeat dog-and-pony shows seeking
money to finance their ventures and to promote the effort to chronicle
their view of drug addiction on Skid Road.

"Let's do lunch," the well-educated, enthusiastic young officers regularly
joked like any other would-be Hollywood types. As fresh-faced and buffed as
Chippendale dancers, the Hip Cop act was a slam-dunk with the city
establishment and equally successful with the normally skeptical media.
Their company, Odd Squad Productions Society, quickly boasted an impressive
list of backers including the police department, city hall and the National
Film Board.

From the local tabloid to The New York Times, on television and radio, the
Odd Squad has been proclaimed a success. On Nov. 20, the premiere of their
52-minute film, Through a Blue Lens, was held at the Vogue Theatre. A
shortened version will be broadcast nationally by CBC Television Wednesday
at 10:25 p.m. There are other projects in the works.

Yet amid all the hoopla and good intentions, no one stopped to ask whether
the Odd Squad represents a responsible public-education program. Do images
of society's most derelict junkies really scare teenagers into abstinence?
Isn't there something wrong with police officers stopping in the middle of
their duties to grab a few snaps of people in life-threatening distress, or
guiding a videographer through the public misery of Vancouver's Downtown

Isn't it ethically questionable to invade the grief of a woman minutes
after her partner has committed suicide in front of her by shooting himself
in the face? Or how about filming someone fixing when you don't know the
purity of the drug and the drug addict could go into immediate cardiac arrest?

Is there any sociological evidence to support what the Odd Squad is doing,
or is Through a Blue Lens just an updated, more sophisticated version of
Reefer Madness?

- - - -

The Odd Squad is a product of Constable Al Arsenault's hobby of snapping
photographs as he walked the Downtown Eastside beat. Initially considered
an eccentric by his blue-uniformed colleagues, Arsenault put together a
slide show for his peers in 1997. The vivid slides of degradation and
despair motivated his partner, Constable Toby Hinton, to also pick up a
camera and to begin using the pictures in community anti-drug presentations.

In March 1998, with anti-drug sentiment in Vancouver running high and
health epidemics in the Downtown Eastside coming to international
prominence, the two police officers and five others decided to form a
non-profit production company to further their ambitions.

So successful were they in promoting their project that the National Film
Board got on board to produce an hour-long "documentary." I use the word in
quotation marks because I believe a documentary is created by a
journalistic production team with an arm's-length relationship to its
subjects. This is not. For all intents and purposes, Through a Blue Lens,
is a promotional film that a group of enthusiastic and earnest Vancouver
policemen made about themselves with the help of some high-level,
professional film-makers.

During the film, which focuses on the nightmare existence of poor addicts,
there is no discussion about the controversial drug prohibitions and
now-ridiculed "war on drugs" that have helped create the mess. There is no
dissenting perspective and no context. In the classroom, their show is a
similarly one-sided, just-say-no dance that educators more and more believe
is anything but anodyne.

At one of their recent school appearances, I watched the Odd Squad perform
their routine for 30 or so Grade 12 students. "Ecstasy, you know what that
is," asked Hinton, and around the room hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps

"Ecstasy is wicked," answers a student, his classmates chuckling about the
favourite snack of all-night dancers.

"Well," says Hinton, "there's four to five ice beds waiting at St. Paul's
every weekend ready for victims of raves because people who freak out on
Ecstasy begin overheating and need to be cooled." He let that sink in.

"Why do people take drugs?" Hinton continued, eyes scanning the room.

"Peer pressure," says a student.

"It's cool!" offers another.

"It's fun!" says a third.

"Does anybody want to be a drug addict?" Hinton asks finally, a showman
bringing his audience to the point. "Do you choose to be a drug addict?"
Around the room there is a chorus of "No!"

"No? I think you do by experimenting." It's a thought that catches the
kids:  chemical suicide -- just one hit and you're finished!

"Who is going to play addiction roulette?" Hinton continues. "That's what
you're doing every time you experiment with drugs. Who knows who is going
to become the addict? Who will embark on a life of chasing the dragon?"

With that, the police officers show their movie, an unrelenting chronicle
of squalor and medical crisis that could be titled Vancouver Hope-less.

"Home!" a kid yells with the opening shot of the Balmoral Hotel and the
Hastings Street strip with someone passed out on the sidewalk. There is an
addict's room littered with the detritus of drug dependency: baking soda,
spoons, papers, baggies, candles, matches.

The photograph of an addict with a gaping open wound on his neck ripe with
gangrene causes audible gasps. "Too much, man," says one teenager.

"It's not meant to scare you straight," Hinton says without irony, "it's
just to show you."

A voice offscreen in the film asks a junkie how she ended up on the skids.
"I walked," the woman identified as Carlee answers deadpan as she applies
gauze to the gaping self-inflicted wound on her forearm, the product of
cocaine psychosis. "Too much," moans one young man. A girl rises in disgust
and leaves the room.

"It's too much for me, too," says a second guy, who exits as Carlee prods
and pokes at the sore, describing how she picked away the skin and kept
picking until she excavated the hole on her arm. "There were bugs there, I
don't care what anybody says," she explains.

As the police draw out the sad details of Carlee's tragic life for their
movie, the audience learns her boyfriend John is lying brain-dead in
hospital. "John shot himself in the face tonight," she tells the camera of
the incident that took place only minutes before. "Right in front of me. I
don't know whether he's going to live or die."

After the presentation, members of the Odd Squad insist the graphic and
grotesque images were not intended as a horror flick for teenagers. "We are
not trying to scare anyone," Toby says. "It's not us ramming it down your
throat. It's your choice. This is the people talking about their lifestyle
and its costs."

- - - -

The only problem with that educational theory is that many experts say it's
misguided - addiction isn't a choice, and just because a picture jolts the
retina doesn't mean it will stop someone from becoming an addict.

One recent extensive study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice
to evaluate the effectiveness of similar, police-sponsored anti-drug
programs, found they had limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior.
 Dr. Joel Brown, director of the Berkeley-based Educational Research
Consultants and an author of another respected study that reached similar
conclusions, said the main reason such programs don't work is the "no-use
message" regarding drugs and alcohol.

Brown claims students old enough to understand the difference between
substance use and abuse find the programs inaccurate. "They know that one
beer is not as bad as 10, and they see their parents have a glass of wine
with dinner without ill effects," he says.

Educators, Brown argues, should be orienting kids toward preventing the
riskiest behaviour rather than dwelling on a no-use policy. By using scare
tactics and not considering experimentation as an option, he maintains,
lifesaving information may not be emphasized.

"We don't want kids to use drugs, but the reality is that it might happen,"
says Brown. "We want to prevent horrible things from happening - such as
them getting AIDS from intravenous drug use - by giving them honest and
accurate information."

Other drug-policy reformers agree saying the just-say-no approach isn't
really education - it's indoctrination. Vancouver Police Constable Gil
Puder ceaselessly tried to impress that point on his department, the city
the province and the federal government before his recent death from cancer.

"We're continually bombarded by self-proclaimed police 'drug experts' who
speak to schoolchildren and make media releases on behalf of their
agencies, readily contradicting scholarly analyses with smear tactics and
conjecture," Puder said.

"This intellectual dishonesty is painfully apparent when agencies
appropriate the educator's mandate, substituting police for professional
teachers. In our information-based society, we can't patronize people any
more, regardless of their age."

Unlike its nurturing of the Odd Squad, the force threatened to discipline
Puder for expressing his opinion that prohibition drug laws should be
repealed and a harm-reduction strategy adopted by governments.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, I think the Odd Squad reflects the
force's closed-minded attitude. Through a Blue Lens makes it manifest with
its lack of context and the glaring omission of alternative perspectives -
even that of Puder, their colleague.
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