Old case files reveal Vancouver police have always tolerated unsanctioned supervised-injection sites
Using freedom-of-information legislation, the Straight obtained VPD files related to three previous supervised-injection sites that ran in Vancouver outside the law
Tomorrow (October 21) will mark one month since an unsanctioned supervised-injection facility began operating in the Downtown Eastside.
There’s not much to it. It’s a tent facing a back alley behind 62 East Hastings that offers clean needles and other basic equipment for people who inject drugs like cocaine and heroin. A skeleton staff —usually just one or two volunteers—is on hand with naloxone, the so-called overdose antidote that’s used to block the effects of opioids.
Erected by activists in response to a record number of overdose deaths, the tent is saving lives. Volunteers have administered naloxone (also known by its tradename Narcan) to people experiencing an overdose who might have died without it. But the tent is also illegal under federal law. On October 13, the City of Vancouver issued a media release stating it was aware of the tent but had nothing to do with it.
Police have also known about the site since the day it opened but haven’t taken any action against it.
In a telephone interview, VPD Const. Brian Montague, a spokesperson for the force, said the tent simply wasn’t a priority.
“We’re not looking at this as a police matter,” he told the Straight. “It’s a health issue.”
“For the most part, the only way for police to deal with something like that is to be arresting people for possession,” Montague continued. “Which is something we wouldn’t be doing.”
He added that officers might take action, “if there is a criminal element or a concern for public safety”. But Montague said he’s unaware of the tent attracting so much as a noise complaint.
The police department’s hands-off approach is in line with how it has responded to several similarly illegal sites that came and went before the one operating today.
Using freedom-of-information (FOI) legislation, the Straight obtained VPD files related to three previous supervised-injection sites that ran in Vancouver outside the law.
Those are 356 Powell Street, which operated from 1995 to 1996; 213 Dunlevy Avenue, which ran from 2000 to 2001; and 327 Carrall Street, which ran from 2001 to 2002.
The records are likely incomplete. The VPD’s response to each request notes that there is a “limited search capacity” for records predating 2001. But the documents, combined with interviews, also make clear the VPD was aware that each site was making available unsanctioned services for intravenous drug users. And each site was given at least unspoken permission to remain open for several months or longer.
According to the documents, all three sites together attracted less than a handful of police incidents across the combined two to three years that they operated.
Files related to 213 Dunlvey include a report of a disturbance and another report of “suspicious circumstances”, and that’s it.
The facility at 327 Carrall attracted a little more attention. During the time it operated as a supervised-injection site, police recorded one incident involving threats, an assault in progress, a disturbance, and one instance of “annoying circumstances”.
For 356 Powell Street, the VPD’s information and privacy unit reported it could not locate any case files but, again, emphasized research limitations.
The tent open today at 62 East Hastings was organized by Ann Livingston, a long-time activist who was involved in all three sites mentioned above, and Sarah Blyth, a former Vancouver parks commissioner.
In a telephone interview, Livingston said she remembers more police involvement at the previous sites than is revealed in the files obtained by the Straight.
“At 327 Carrall Street, the police cut our lock off and put their own lock on the door,” She said. “I guess they didn’t write that down anywhere.”
Livingston said it also wasn’t uncommon for police officers to park squad cars outside of unsanctioned-injection sites with the intent of deterring people carrying drugs from entering those facilities. But she was quick to add that she always felt those actions were undertaken by individual officers and did not reflect policies of the department.
In a separate interview, Blyth recounted volunteering at the tent when police officers dropped by.
“It’s usually just a, ‘Hello, how’s your day?’ ” she said. “They’re just in the alleys, as they normally do.”
Blyth said that since a sharp increase in fatal overdoses began in 2011, frontline responders—including police officers, firefighters, nurses, and nonprofit staff—have all struggled to keep up with the added workload and heightened stress.
“We all see a situation where people’s lives need to be saved,” she said. "Everybody’s stepping up for that. So there’s a comradery or whatever between people.”
Today (October 20), the B.C. Coroners Service released updated numbers for illicit-drug overdose deaths. They reveal that with three months left in the year, 2016 has already seen a record high of 555 such fatalities. That compares to 508 for all of 2015 and has far surpassed the previous all-time high of 400, recorded in 1998.
Vancouver Coastal Health recently announced the locations of two new low-barrier supervised-injection sites. Those are proposed for 528 Powell Street and 330 Heatley Street. In addition, it has expanded hours at the city’s existing injection site, Insite. That facility, at 139 East Hastings Street, is now open 24 hours during the three days a month following welfare-cheque issuance. A fourth, women-only site for intravenous-drug users is also in the works but still without a proposed address.