Vancouver's harm-reduction history revealed in new book Fighting for Space

Telling a fast-paced story about Downtown Eastside activists, veteran reporter Travis Lupick searches the past for solutions to North America's opioid crisis

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      Here in Vancouver, it’s tempting to praise ourselves for our forward-thinking approaches to illicit drug use. We’re home to Insite, the first supervised-injection facility in North America, the success of which paved the way for Health Canada to start approving prospective supervised-injection sites in other cities across the country this year. We’re also home to the first and only prescription heroin program on the continent, which has proven how life-changing it can be for a person entrenched in opiate addiction to have access to a clean, regulated supply of drugs.

      But Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside remains the epicentre of a provincewide overdose crisis that has killed a record-breaking 1,013 British Columbians through the first eight months of this year. That put us on track to exceed 1,500 overdose deaths by the end of 2017. “That’s hard to even comprehend,” says Travis Lupick, a reporter with the Georgia Straight. His first book, about Vancouver’s history of drug-user activism and its new growth in the U.S., is out November 1 through Arsenal Pulp Press.

      The book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle With Addiction, delineates how Vancouver became the vanguard of harm-reduction approaches to illicit drug use through the advocacy, activism, and actions of Downtown Eastside drug users and their allies in the 1990s and early 2000s.

      By 1997 and 1998, the Vancouver-Richmond health board declared a public health emergency in the Downtown Eastside for its explosion of HIV/AIDS rates among injection-drug users and a spate of illicit-drug overdose deaths that had reached epidemic proportions years earlier in 1991.

      “It’s a history that Vancouver takes for granted. We’ve really quickly forgotten how difficult these struggles were for the people who pushed through them,” Lupick says at a West Broadway coffee shop.

      His book recounts the tense leadup to Insite opening its doors, and the Supreme Court of Canada case that threatened to shut it down. (It didn’t.) He writes about how Portland Hotel Society cofounders Liz Evans and Mark Townsend, fearing jail time, time for their involvement with opening Insite, sat down with their children to tell them they have might have to go away for a while.

      “You don’t put children through those conversations unless you’re really worried about that happening,” Lupick says. He also notes how Ann Livingston, cofounder of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and a long-time harm-reduction activist, endured years of police harassment for her work.

      “Twenty years later, all of these people are celebrated and Vancouver is championed as this amazing experiment of harm reduction. But for the people who were pushing it through its earliest days, there were really very real consequences that they faced. And it was not easy for them.”

      Lupick spent months interviewing Evans, Townsend, Livingston, Insite plaintiff and noted drug-user advocate Dean Wilson, and other Downtown Eastside luminaries for his book. He spent most of the December 2016 holiday break on the phone with Evans and Townsend, who now reside in New York City, and long evenings at Livingston’s apartment, where they would talk late into the night.

      Livingston turned the contents of her storage locker over to Lupick, where he combed through 20 boxes of handwritten journal entries, flip-chart paper containing meeting minutes from early drug-user groups that formed in the 1990s, public-health reports, and newspaper clippings. In the basement of a library at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Lupick found a trove of the late Downtown Eastside activist and poet Bud Osborn’s writing, and he scoured journalist Johann Hari’s recordings of the final extensive interviews Osborn gave to the press before he died.

      Arsenal Pulp Press

      Fighting for Space, encyclopedic in its research, is a testament to the grit, heart, and relentlessness central to making drug users matter in a society that has, for years, deemed them unworthy of care, dignity, or compassion. Lupick dedicates six chapters of the book to harm-reduction efforts gaining momentum in cities across the United States. It’s exciting, important work, but Lupick maintains American harm-reduction initiatives are 20 years behind where Canada is now.

      “There really is so much that other jurisdictions, especially in the United States, can learn from the Vancouver story,” he says. “I hope that policy makers and activists in places like North Carolina and Florida really do pick up on what happened in Vancouver and try and take some of the lessons that we learned 20 years ago and apply them today.”

      At the same time, Canada shouldn’t rest on its laurels. Most federal politicians don’t seem to grasp the true impacts that a contaminated illicit-drug supply is having on people in B.C., Lupick says.

      “Canada’s not yet talking about what I’ve reluctantly come to view as the only solutions there are for the fentanyl crisis, if you accept two very simple facts, and I think they are facts,” he maintains.

      First, he says, people will always use drugs. Second, B.C.’s illicit-drug supply is contaminated beyond repair—and this will soon be the case for the rest of the country.

      “If you accept those two things,” Lupick adds, “then the only pragmatic, realistic solution I see is to legalize and regulate illicit narcotics.”

      It’s a solution widely embraced by frontline workers, drug users, and advocates in Vancouver. But the prospect of legalizing and regulating illicit drugs is what “the prime minister has entirely ruled out even a conversation about,” Lupick says.

      He expects things to get worse in Canada before they get better, particularly in major cities like Toronto and Ottawa. “I just don’t think they understand the extent of how bad this is. But it’s going to get worse [in the] East,” he predicts.

      “It’s sad that more people are going to have to die before it catches their attention.”

      A public book launch for Fighting for Space takes place on November 16 at the Beaumont Studios, starting at 7 p.m. The event features a panel discussion about B.C.’s fentanyl crisis, a short performance of the arts-based project "Illicit: Stories From a Harm Reduction Movement," an audience Q&A, and a book signing.