(Vancouver Courier, January 9, 2012)
In the Downtown Eastside, crack cocaine is king. As the neighbourhood's most popular drug, it's used solely or with other drugs such as heroin or methadone. It's a symptom and cause of widespread misery.
All along Hasting Street, a gauntlet of crack dealers flog their wares. "Rock." "Base." "Best rock right here." According to locals, quality varies depending on the dealer and the price. A typical crack "rock" sells for $10. "But most of it's shit," said Allan Diplock, a short, fidgety 42-year-old with thick bifocals whom I met last Friday morning. Standing on a rain-soaked East Hastings street corner, Diplock represents the target demographic for the provincial government's latest harm reduction experiment in the Downtown Eastside.
Beginning last month, for at least the next eight months, Vancouver Coastal Health, through proxy locations around the neighbourhood, will give away crack pipe kits to anyone no matter their age or state of addiction. According to theory, fresh pipes limit the spread of disease such as hepatitis C. Give an addict a new pipe, they say, and you'll decrease infection rates. The project will cost $60,000 and include 60,000 pipes. Despite sections 462.1 and 462.2 of the Criminal Code, which prohibit the promotion of "instruments or literature for illicit drug use," it's the grandest crack pipe giveaway in Canadian history.
Last Friday, I visited three crack pipe distributors in the Downtown Eastside. First stop: the Lookout Downtown Hazelton Residence, a squat brick building on Alexander Street where Sarah, a smiley young redhead, stood behind the front counter.
"Can I have a crack pipe, please?"
"Sure," said Sarah, reaching into a plastic bin full of crack pipe kits. Each kit, packed in a Ziploc bag, includes a four-inch cylindrical glass pipe, 10 metal pipe screens, two plastic mouthpieces, eight alcohol swabs, two skinny wooden push sticks and a how-to manual boasting the VCH slogan "Promoting wellness. Ensuring care" alongside a 1-866 detox hotline. Although I never asked for extras, Sarah gave me two pipes and bade me farewell.
Next stop, 380 East Hastings, headquarters of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. A busy place with a constant stream of people flowing through VANDU's brick archway. Behind another front counter, Marlene, a First Nations women with a black ponytail and leather jacket, smiled at me.
"Can I have a crack pipe, please?"
Before leaving, I asked Marlene about drug treatment options. She referred me to her colleague-a tall, bearded thirtysomething in an L.A. Dodgers hat. "We're not expert on that," he said. "Our suggestion is to go to Insite." (Incidental footnote: During a letter to the Courier last September, Patricia Daly, VCH's chief medical health officer, said "health care providers" who are "professionals" would distribute crack pipes. Marlene and the L.A. Dodger may be nice, but they're not health care professionals.)
Outside on the sidewalk, Jennifer Gravelle, who also received a kit from Marlene, inspected her pipe. Now 30 years old, Gravelle's smoked crack for 10 years. The rain flattened her brown hair and left two circles of pink blush on each cheekbone. "I think it's awesome," she said, noting the many pipes she's received from VANDU over the past few weeks. "People sharing crack pipes is not a good idea." But has anyone from VANDU asked about your situation or recommended treatment options? "Nope. Never."
Last stop. The Washington Needle Depot at Main and Hastings. To find the depot, walk west on Hastings from Main Street, take your first left into an alley and enter the second door (slightly ajar) to meet Lawrence, a grey-haired deadringer of late comedian George Carlin.
"Can I have two crack pipes, please?"
"OK. But you can't come back today."
Lawrence didn't want me "back today" because crack pipes sell on the black market, although the market impact of government pipes remains unknown. However, back on the street: "I don't like it," said Allan Diplock while wiping raindrops off his bifocals. "Why buy a pipe on the street if you can get one for free?" To subsidize his crack habit, Diplock sells pipes on Hastings for a buck a piece. I showed him my five-pipe stash. He shook his head and smiled. "That's what I'm talking about. It doesn't make sense."