The overdose epidemic receives a lot of media attention in Vancouver. More than 350 people in the city died after taking drugs last year, which is an astronomical number for a population its size. Journalists have responded admirably and devote daily coverage to the health crisis. But Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), told the Straight there’s one voice that, while increasingly included, rarely gets to lead these public conversations.
Mullins said he wanted to change that. The result is Crackdown, a new podcast created in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that covers the overdose crisis and the war on drugs from the perspectives of drug users.
“With very few exceptions, coverage of drug users falls into two broad categories: blaming people for bad choices…or with sympathy,” Mullins said in a telephone interview. “Neither one of those narratives gives us any agency or gives us any sense of self-determination. That’s what we’re putting into this [the podcast].”
Crackdown’s first episode is scheduled for release tomorrow (January 30). Titled “War Correspondents,” it introduces the team behind the podcast and explains the urgency with which they’re working.
“I tried to count how many of my friends and colleagues have died of overdose,” Mullins recounts in the podcast. “I got to around 50 and I just had to stop.”
He describes himself there as a drug user, and argues that this gives him a seldom-recognized authority to speak on the issues at hand.
“Going around the table, we have experience with heroin, crack and speed,” he continues. “Homelessness and jail. Of the Sixties Scoop, where Indigenous kids got taken away from their parents—which is still happening.”
The podcast’s website presents a diverse editorial board consisting of nine drug users. They include Dean Wilson, who helped establish North America’s first supervised-injection facility, Insite; Laura Shaver, who has advocated for people on methadone for nearly a decade; Shelda Kastor, current secretary of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS); and Dave Murray, who was instrumental in the formulation of the continent’s only prescription-heroin program, at Crosstown Clinic in the Downtown Eastside. It’s produced in partnership with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use’s Ryan McNeil, Cited Media Productions, an award-winning team of journalists (who the Straight has partnered with in the past) based at UBC, and freelance journalist Lisa Hale.
Crackdown presents opinions on illegal drugs that don’t often receive a place in mainstream conversations about Canada’s opioid epidemic, which now kills nearly 4,000 people each year.
“One of the most dangerous things about drugs is the fact that they’re illegal,” Mullins says in episode one. “Most of the time, we don’t know what’s in the drugs that we buy. Maybe we just scored dope cut with some kind of illicit fentanyl, pig dewormer, rat poison, household cleaners, cement and other shit. Access to a safe drug supply would save so many lives.
“We’re going to expose bad drug policy as the reason we have bad drugs,” he continues. “We’re going to show how colonialism, poverty, class, sexuality and gender can make the drug war worse for some of us. And how criminalization, jails and police increase the harm. We’re going to look at solutions—like how decriminalization and a safe drug supply could end the overdose crisis.”
A new episode is scheduled for release on the final Wednesday of each month. Mullins told the Straight each episode will cover one specific theme such as policing, housing, gender, and explore how these topics intersect with the war on drugs. He also noted the podcast will not focus exclusively on Vancouver, but could tackle subjects such as the persecution and murder of drug users in the Philippines, and decriminalization in Portugal, for example.
“Now you’ve met the team. And this is our mission. Our manifesto,” Crackdown’s first episode concludes.
“For us it’s a war. And it needs to be covered like a war—by war correspondents. That’s us.”