In Light Up the Night, Travis Lupick tells drug users’ tales without any judgment
Former Georgia Straight reporter Travis Lupick has read practically every book written about the overdose crisis.
Invariably, they’re told from a few perspectives, such as by a parent who has lost a child to addiction. Or by a police officer or politician. Or by someone who is many years in recovery after a past addiction.
All of these can offer valuable insights, but Lupick wanted to do something different. Something unique.
So he wrote a book about the overdose crisis in America from the perspective of those caught up in the current war on drugs.
“Light Up the Night is told through the eyes of people who use drugs without judgment or apology,” Lupick told the Straight by phone from his home in California. “This book relates how drug users are experiencing the overdose crisis and it shares their ideas for how to solve it. I think that is a perspective that has really been needed in this conversation for a long time.”
His first book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle With Addiction, documented how a group of street-entrenched drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside mobilized the community and politicians to advance harm-reduction initiatives that led to North America’s first legal supervised injection site. Two of the key protagonists, Ann Livingston and Liz Evans, played a critical role in prompting many Vancouverites to question the value of drug prohibition and favour looking at addiction as a health issue.
In Light Up the Night: America’s Overdose Crisis and the Drug Users Fighting for Survival, Lupick focuses on two new female protagonists: Jess Tilley of Northampton, Massachusetts, and a resident of Greensboro, North Carolina, Louise Vincent. Tilley is president of the New England Users Union and Vincent is executive director of the Urban Survivors Union. Lupick focused on them because he felt it was important to describe the impact of the overdose crisis outside of New York or Los Angeles, where so many of America’s stories come from.
“They’re also struggling with a very different manifestation of the war on drugs,” Lupick added. “That was the biggest surprise and learning curve for me in Light Up the Night, coming from Canada.”
He was aware that police in the U.S. are more violent than their counterparts in Vancouver, but he didn’t realize how radically different the war on drugs is playing out in America. In Vancouver, for example, Livingston and former park commissioner Sarah Blyth could pitch a tent in a back alley, invite the media, and start an illegal injection site.
“The police would sort of look on from the corners,” Lupick said. “If you did that in the United States, you would go to jail. You would go to jail very quickly.”
Yet in the face of this, Tilley and Vincent have been organizing drug users into a national union across the United States. By telling their stories, Lupick could continue the narrative that he began in Fighting for Space, only this time exploring the overdose crisis south of the border.
While there’s a vocal minority calling for drug-policy reform in the U.S., it still doesn’t have mainstream support. That makes Lupick somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for real change that can reverse the catastrophic number of overdose deaths is so many states.
“Most people do want people who use drugs to go to jail,” he said.
Lupick quickly added that he has seen pockets of hope. For example, New York City opened the first sanctioned injection facility in the U.S. at the end of November, with help from people who played a key role in the creation of Insite in Vancouver.
“Needle exchange is increasingly available in more jurisdictions,” he noted. “There’s a couple of areas where methadone is easier to get, but in other ways, the war on drugs is more severe than ever before.”
That’s most apparent in the federal response to the fentanyl crisis.
“I write in Light Up the Night that the U.S. government’s response to fentanyl is the greatest intensification of the war on drugs that we’ve seen in a generation,” Lupick declared.
It’s come through the adoption of the “drug-induced homicide charge”, a.k.a. “death by distribution”. If a boyfriend goes out to pick up heroin for him and his girlfriend, he will be charged with murder if she happens to die of an overdose—even if he isn’t aware that the drugs that he bought were poisoned with fentanyl or some other substance.
“So in some ways, the war on drugs is softening,” Lupick said. “In other ways, it’s more severe than ever—in response to fentanyl, especially.”