Former drug dealer questions needle exchange

Jim O’Rourke can’t stop thinking about the people he’s murdered. The 51-year-old Vancouverite used to run drugs from Skagway to…

Jim O’Rourke can’t stop thinking about the people he’s murdered.

The 51-year-old Vancouverite used to run drugs from Skagway to Whitehorse.

“How many people do you think I killed bringing dope back?” he said.

“What’s 100 kilos a month, by 12 months, by 20 years?

“Out of that, how many people do you think overdosed and died?”

O’Rourke, who has been clean for 16 years, was in the territory to visit his old stomping grounds with his six-year-old son.

“I was definitely part of the problem,” he said, sitting at a local coffee shop on Monday afternoon.

“So I understand the problem inside out and backwards.

“And I understand the solution — I know what works, and that’s abstinence.”

O’Rourke, who runs three treatment centres in BC’s Lower Mainland, dismisses harm reduction strategies including safe needle exchange programs and crack kit distribution.

“Distributing needles doesn’t stop the spread of disease,” he said.

“Because when you’re loaded and you want to get high you don’t care if that needle’s clean or dirty.”

It’s enablement, said O’Rourke, who’d just run into a junkie on the street.

“I saw this guy all wired, who was trying to separate his juice,” he said.

Methadone comes mixed with Tang, explained O’Rourke.

So, junkies try to separate the methadone, then “bang it with morphine.”

“Giving away free heroin, free methadone or free needles doesn’t allow an addict to hit bottom,” he said.

“No bottom — no recovery.”

O’Rourke hit bottom after being charged for the fourth time.

“I was a violent offender,” he said, taking a sip of coffee.

“I cut someone up with a knife.

“Rock bottom was when I done the act and was arrested.”

O’Rourke thought he was headed to a federal penitentiary for five years, and didn’t want to go.

He quit drugs and started attending AA and NA meetings twice a day.

The changes were noted in O’Rourke’s pre-sentencing reports and his sentence kept diminishing.

In the end, the judge gave him 90 days and weekends.

Getting clean isn’t easy, he said.

“It’s pain-induced change.”

He remembers his sponsor holding his hand, supporting him and brewing green tea.

“He told me I’d get through this, that I had to remember these days — that the pain would help me stay clean,” said O’Rourke.

Eventually people stop working at the program and just live it, he said.

That, or they die.

Since January, O’Rourke has lost 18 of the addicts who frequent his drop-in facilities.

“I call them my two-day warriors,” he said.

“It’s hard to hug someone when you know they’re going off to die.”

People have to find their own bottom, he said.

“Sometimes that takes 30, 40, or 50 tries.

“And sometimes I just watch people die.”

O’Rourke runs yearlong treatment programs for violent offenders court-ordered to attend.

In the last year, 18 of his 46 clients stayed clean after finishing the program.

The key to success is follow-up, said O’Rourke.

“A 28-day program is nothing without it.”

O’Rourke would like to see treatment followed by placement in supportive housing with on-site counsellors and family unification programming.

Limited treatment options keep dope dealers in the money, he said.

“The best way to put a dope dealer out of business is to make sure he has no clientele.”

There should be a collage of treatment options available in the community, said O’Rourke.

“But the end result of all of them should be abstinence — not maintenance or enablement.”

Trouble is, not everybody is ready for treatment, said Yukon Family Services executive director Marilyn Wolovick on Thursday.

“People aren’t always ready to quit drugs.

“So you’ve got to supply them with harm reduction (options) to reduce their risk until they’re ready to go into treatment,” she said.

Yukon Family Services operates the No Fixed Address Outreach Van.

Six nights a week, the van distributes food, clothing, water, clean needles and crack kits to marginalized Whitehorse residents.

O’Rourke doesn’t mind the outreach van distributing clothing and food.

It’s the needles and crack kits that are the problem, he said, citing local drug addict Chris Ouellet.

“Ouellet needs an intervention,” he said.

“He needs to go to jail and to detox, because he hasn’t had a clear thought in 20 years.”

Ouellet doesn’t need clean needles delivered to his door, said O’Rourke.

“That’s not life — that’s death on the installment plan.”

It would be great if everyone could quit drugs, said Wolovick.

“But if they’re not going to quit, let’s have them use their needles safely, bring their needles back to the safe-needle exchange, and use proper health protocols to prevent the transmission of diseases.”

Family Services always provides counselling when handing out needles and crack kits, added Wolovick.

“We’re not just handing things out blindly.”

Harm reduction strategies keep the whole community safer, she said, citing the four-pillar approach — prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction.

“If you take one of those legs away the table will fall.”

Internationally, there’s strong evidence that harm reduction is a viable and effective way to help marginalized populations and prevent the spread of disease, she said.

The Yukon could definitely benefit from more treatment programs, added Wolovick.

“We’re doing our best in the Yukon with the limited resources we have.”

The Outreach Van has a 90 per cent needle return rate, and it’s increasing, said Wolovick.

“We get back a phenomenal number of needles, sometimes it’s more than we actually give out.”

If people are ready for treatment, Family Services helps them access it, said Wolovick.

“And in the meantime, we’re building trust with people and giving them the chance to make safer choices in their lives.”