Vancouver combats heroin by giving its addicts the best smack in the world

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Marco Werman: A lot of cities around the world have programs to help heroin addicts. Usually the idea is to give them free methadone, a drug that helps them kick the habit. But in Vancouver, they have another way. Nurses there are giving the city’s worth heroin addicts some of the purest heroine in the world. It’s even funded by the Canadian government. Doctors and politicians who support the program say methadone just is not working for some users. Allen Schauffler is Al Jazeera’s pacific northwest correspondent. He followed one addict as he went to a clinic to shoot up on the government’s dime.


Allen Schauffler: For people who are in that position, where methadone just doesn’t work for them and who have tried various times to kick the heroin habit and failed, it’s been determined by a set of medical practitioners who practice what they call “harm reduction,” that if you give these people doses of heroin every day and keep them comfortable, keep them docile, keep the demons of heroin addiction at bay, then those people are just much less likely to end up in an alley dead with a needle in their arms or much less likely to sell themselves sexually for money to buy drugs or much less likely to break into somebody’s car to steal something, or to shoplift, or to strongarm rob or whatever. So, the harm that they can cause to themselves and society is reduced if you simply give them the drug.


Werman: You followed one addict, a man named Kevin, as he went into the clinic and shot up in front of everybody in public. Had you ever witnessed the before and after a fix like that before?


Schauffler: I’d never seen anything like that at all. Kevin Thompson--he was great, he was totally open and honest and willing to deal with us, which, to me, was extraordinary--and frankly, I’ve always had problems with needles and just the concept of heroin addiction scares the hell out of me. So, watching someone just go in and casually fail to find a good vein in his right arm and then fail to find a good vein in his left arm, and then just very comfortably say to the attendant “Just give me a different kind of point. I need to just jab it straight into my arm muscle, I’m going to ‘muscle it,’” he said, watching him do all that was very, very unsettling. But he sat down for an interview after that-- the first time I’ve ever, to my knowledge, interviewed anybody who was high on heroin, and I have to say this was at the urging of the healthcare provider which runs this clinic, their PR staff said “Look, interview these folks after they’ve had their fix, you’ll be very interested to find that they’re pretty verbal and seem fairly normal.” So, we did that and he was willing to talk and he was very conversive, but he was also clearly high. So, it was an interesting time. Very interesting. He thinks it’s tremendous, of course. Kevin says his life has stabilized, he has a part-time job, he’s hoping to go to school at some point, wants to try to get into drug counseling of all things and hopes to keep people off heroin while he, in the meanwhile, is guaranteed, as long as the program lasts, the best heroin in the world until he dies.


Werman: That’s all good for Kevin, but he also puts the social choice with this program in very stark terms. He says “Free heroin or I end up robbing your car. Take your pick.” To me, that sounds like Vancouver is almost giving in to an unspoken form of blackmail.


Schauffler: That’s absolutely a good way of describing it, and that’s the concept behind harm reduction, is that if you keep Kevin and people like Leanne, the woman we talked to in the story as well, sedated, then they won’t go shoplifting, they won’t put a gun in your face and demand money, they won’t sell their bodies for money for smack on the streets. So, it is a form of blackmail and it’s very odd for me too, because what it does is say to these people “Yep, you’re heroin addicts; a certain number of you, the most severely addicted, are heroin addicts, you’ll always be heroin addicts. There is no hope for you of getting off heroin, therefore let’s provide you with heroin so you’re the least dangerous drug addict you can possibly be.” It’s a very odd moral line to walk and it made this story and doing this story really interesting and really challenging for our whole crew.


Werman: Does this mean that Vancouver is always going to be in the heroin business now?


Schauffler: It seems that way. This is something that’s going to go to court next year and will almost certainly end up before the Supreme Court of Canada. We should make the point though that this is for a very small percentage of the most severely addicted intravenous drug users, those for whom the people in this clinic have determined there is simply no other option, that their bodies are too toxic, just too soaked with heroin that they can ever get off it. That’s the decision that’s been made about this very small percentage of heroin users. It’s just a small way of addressing a huge problem. They figure there are 5,000 to 8,000 intravenous drug users just in the city of Vancouver, so there’s some question about the extent that this could be used and how much it could be broadened, how big a population it could eventually apply to. We just don’t know that at this point.


Werman: Allen Schauffler, correspondent for Al Jazeera in the pacific northwest. Thanks very much for your time.


Schauffler: My pleasure.