Remember the Odd Squad? They're still talking about drugs but not everyone thinks they should be

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      If you grew up in B.C. and attended high school during the late 1990s or early 2000s, there’s a good chance you remember the Odd Squad.

      Maybe not by name. But you recall members of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) meeting a class or two in the school’s gymnasium or one of your teachers sharing a documentary they produced called Through a Blue Lens.

      Consisting of a group of beat cops who worked the Downtown Eastside, they brought the horrors of inner-city drug addiction into B.C. classrooms and shared a gritty reality with suburban kids who might soon experiment with their first toke of marijuana.

      The Odd Squad is still around. Its active members, Al Arsenault and Mark Steinkampf, still carry cameras and visit schools upon request.

      They were in the news earlier this year for comments Arsenault made in relation to Vancouver’s fentanyl crisis.

      "I don't support elements of harm reduction that are legalizers in sheep's clothing there," he told CBC News.

      The term harm reduction describes a collection of health interventions that aim to reduce harms association with drug use: for example, providing users with clean needles to minimize the spread of HIV/AIDS and opening supervised-injection facilities where people can use drugs under staff supervision. Arsenault's negative comments were probably referring to more radical programs like prescription heroin.

      B.C.’s response to the overdose epidemic—which this year is on track to kill more than 1,400 people—is primarily one of harm reduction. The province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, recently said that if it weren’t for B.C.’s emphasis on harm reduction, the number of deaths could triple.

      Arsenault’s point against some aspects of B.C.’s harm-reduction efforts was part of a larger argument he was making in favour of more spending on prevention. But it attracted criticism and raised questions about the group’s relevance as conversations about drug use begin to move beyond “Just say no.”

      Today (December 1), the Tyee has a long and detailed article that asks the question, “Is It time to retire the Odd Squad?

      “We have filled the country with knowledge of risk, and yet we have the highest overdose rates we’ve ever had and it’s still climbing,” Dan Reist, director of the Knowledge Exchange at the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, told the online news outlet.

      The article points to academic reviews of the DARE program, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education and, similar to the Odd Squad, relied on scare tactics to discourage young people from using drugs. After 30 years of DARE in North American schools, the academic literature suggests an emphasis on scaring kids straight has had very little positive effect, if any at all. (Critics argue an exaggeration of the dangers of drug use can lead teenagers to question adults' entire argument against drugs.)

      The 1999 documentary Through a Blue Lens won several awards for its gritty portrayal of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
      National Film Board of Canada

      With B.C.’s drug supply badly contaminated with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, there’s no doubt a drug addiction is more dangerous than ever. Since 2010, illicit-drug overdose deaths across the province have increased from 211 that year to 333 in 2013 to a projected 1,470 in 2017.

      But are groups like the Odd Squad helping?

      Travis Lupick is a journalist based in Vancouver. His first book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction, was published in November 2017. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.