VANCOUVER (CUP) - Walking into the meeting centre for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the first-time visitor will quickly notice three things.
The first thing will be the line-up, roughly 20 people deep, to receive the evening's bus fare.
Next will be the funk and disco tunes coming from the stereo, the James Brown and the Kool and the Gang, and the smell of incense.
Finally, it will be the two black coffins in the corner, both with white slogans painted onto them. The first says: "Almost 2000 people have OD'd since 1992." The second asks: "Who is the next OD victim?"
Every Saturday afternoon at the corner of Jackson and Powell in Vancouver's downtown eastside, about 100 people gather for ham sandwiches, no-name cola, some laughs and some heavy conversation. Recently, on Halloween weekend, the tone was comparatively light-hearted. Jokes about people's neighbours and the Vancouver Canucks could be overheard.
Only a couple weeks earlier, however, former Vancouver Police chief Ken Higgins visited the centre to conduct a workshop to get the group talking about what they wanted to see changed in the troubled area.
A poll was taken. Nine people said they wanted to see guest fees in single residence occupancy hotels eliminated. That way, fewer people would be left shooting up by themselves, and the danger of overdosing would be reduced. Seventeen others said they wanted to see 911 boxes installed in the area to make up for the coin boxes that have been removed due to vandalism.
Other proposals included adding more 24-hour washrooms and drug-testing sites on the streets, and stopping police from driving their cars onto the sidewalk to clear suspected drug activity
But of all the proposals, the most popular one was the idea of safe-injection sites.
David, a heroin user who's lived in the area for six years, is among those who believe strongly in the idea. He has three reasons why. In this past week alone, that's exactly the number of family members he's lost to overdoses.
"I lost three people in my family for that shit, but I still use it," he said. "When anyone does it, it's Russian Roulette. We need a safe place where somebody can go shoot."
Going though difficult experiences is one of the reasons people turn to drugs, says Bud Osborn, a poet and outreach worker in the downtown eastside.
"One of the main things to remember is that 90 per cent of the people (addicted to heroin) come from trauma and abuse early in their lives," he said.
"It's not so much an attempt to get high, but a way to reduce the pain," added Osborn, a former heroin addict himself.
Osborn is one of several experts calling for a new approach to the way British Columbians view and treat hard drug addicts. Rather than seeing the issue as one of law-enforcement, Osborn says it's time a "harm reduction" approach is taken to drug addiction.
"In B.C. we're basically saying (to addicts), Śwe'd rather you die than have you hope to live.' None of the initiatives we've got now will do anything to reduce the number of deaths."
The number of people in the province who die of a drug overdose has been climbing steadily for the past 10 years. In 1988, 39 people died from overdosing and nine years later, in 1997, the number reached 310.
Experts warn 1998 promises to be even worse. By August 21, 254 British Columbians had already died, surpassing the previous year's total on the same day by 60.
What Osborn and other experts are stressing is that it doesn't have to be that way.
Simin Tabrizi, a consultant for Health Canada, traveled through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands earlier this year and compiled a report on what certain European cities had done for their drug using populations.
In Frankfurt, drug overdose deaths have fallen from 147 in 1991 to 31 in 1997, she writes in her report. The decrease can be attributed to safe-injection sites and a heroin maintenance program for chronic addicts.
The Swiss government has gone even further. From 1994 to 1997, the government ran a pilot program where addicts were given medically-prescribed narcotics. In a study released last year, the researchers behind the program concluded it had resulted in significant improvements in health, social integration, and labour-force participation.
They also said the economic benefits had been significant.
For those reasons, Tabrizi says she'd like to see the harm-reduction approach brought to Vancouver.
"I'd like to see a well-coordinated network that would include detox on demand, much expanded counselling, a much expanded methadone program, and a network of support programs that address all of their life circumstances from housing to nutritional needs."
Osborn has a slightly different take on harm reduction. He says the number one priority has to be saving as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible. Therefore, he says, safe-injection sites have to be the top priority.
"Drug users I talk to and know are speaking for safe injection sites. For them it's a matter of life and death," he said.
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