The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - > BY JACKIE WONG

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 su­per­vised­in­jec­tion 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 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 this month 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 harm­re­duc­tion 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 the late 1990s, the Van­cou­ver-rich­mond health board had 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 for their in­volve­ment with open­ing In­site, sat down with their chil­dren to tell them they 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, who combed through 20 boxes of hand­writ­ten jour­nal en­tries, flipchart 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.

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 harm­re­duc­tion ef­forts gain­ing mo­men­tum in cities across the United States. It’s ex­cit­ing, im­por­tant work, but Lupick main­tains Amer­i­can harm­re­duc­tion 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 pol­i­cy­mak­ers 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.”

Fight­ing for space will launch on Novem­ber 16 at the Beau­mont Stu­dios, start­ing at 7 p.m. The event fea­tures a panel dis­cus­sion about B.C.’S fen­tanyl cri­sis and a book sign­ing.

In Fight­ing­forspace au­thor Travis Lupick ex­plores the roots of ad­dic­tion.

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