Due to yesterday’s VPD raid on the Vancouver Needle Exchange, we bring you the best drugwar/drugpeace face-off. CNN’s “Crossfire”: Ethan Nadelmann vs. Senator John Ashcroft. To CNN: A for guests, F- for limiting the discussion to 2 anti-autonomy solutions.
What the front page should be screaming:
The VPD RAIDS THE NEEDLE EXCHANGE
– US intolerant insanity spreads to “tolerant” Vancouver
What the headline actually says (bottom of page B1):
Plea to save needle exchange program
Friday, June 07, 2002
Health and city officials are scrambling to get a street-operated Downtown Eastside needle exchange for drug addicts back on track after police raided the operation, seized a tent and tables that they said didn’t have the necessary city permits, and claimed that volunteers at the booth were engaged in criminal activity.
“We’re trying to see if we can reach a compromise so we can continue to have the needle-exchange operation,” said Tara Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
Several health officials, including provincial medical health officer Perry Kendall and the authority’s medical health officer, Dr. John Blatherwick, made presentations to the Vancouver police board Thursday about the health benefits of the needle exchange, which is the only one that operates at night in the city. It distributes about 1,200 needles each night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Health studies have indicated that lack of accessibility to needles is the major cause of needle-sharing among drug addicts, a practice that is directly linked to the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Wilson said the health authority doesn’t want to interfere in police work, but it wants to find a way to separate their pursuit of criminal activities from the needle exchange’s operations.
City deputy licence inspector Barb Windsor said Friday the city is trying to work something out with police so that at least the tent and tables can be returned on an interim basis.
The exchange, which is staffed by volunteer members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users under the auspices of the health authority, has operated for the last two years under an informal agreement between the city, health authorities and the police.
Windsor said the city had no problem with the tables and tent, since they were clearly part of the drug strategy that the city is supporting. But now that police have made an issue of it, the health authority will have to go through a development-permit process that will take several months to complete.
In the meantime, officials from the Vancouver police department are insisting that the department has no problem with the needle exchange itself, or the city’s “four-pillar” drug strategy, which includes an emphasis on harm-reduction initiatives aimed at trying to improve addicts’ health.
“We absolutely support the concept of the needle-exchange program and other health initiatives,” said Detective Scott Driemel. He said the issue of possible criminal activity by volunteers at the table is still under investigation, but no one has been charged.
Police officers had conducted undercover surveillance at the table last Friday, which operates in the middle of Vancouver’s notorious open drug market at Main and Hastings, where up to 200 people often mill about, buying and selling drugs. They said they observed one volunteer smoking crack, one steering the undercover officer to a dealer, and both warning people if uniformed police were in the area. They then brought in eight officers and a paddy wagon to shut down the exchange, confiscating the tent, tables and chairs.
But Dean Wilson, president of the drug users association, said the police just seem to be engaged in petty harassment of the exchange because they are frustrated with drug dealing on the corner and their inability to stop it.
“If anyone did anything, then charge us,” Wilson said. “I think they’re just trying to stop us from operating.”
Wilson said it’s far-fetched to think that anyone at Main and Hastings would need to be “steered” to a dealer, as police say one volunteer did, when there are usually at least a dozen dealers milling around on the corner, calling out “up,” “down,” “rock” and other street names for heroin and crack.
He said the volunteer accused of smoking crack didn’t smoke it at the table, but went around the corner on a break to smoke.
Wilson said the needle exchange is continuing to operate.
“We’re just doing walkabouts for now.”
There appears to be little slowdown in business. The volunteers, carrying around the needles in backpacks, distributed 1,100 between Thursday night and Friday morning, he said.
The police raid ruptured a fragile working arrangement among police, social agencies and government that is aimed at trying to reduce health problems and crime created by the intense concentration of drug dealing and addiction in the area.
Police Inspector Ken Frail, who oversees operations in the Downtown Eastside, said after the raid that police were concerned about criminal activity at the needle-exchange tent. But he also expressed personal doubts about the effectiveness of a needle exchange run by addicts.
© Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun