A couple of years ago, Ben Gribben nearly killed himself with crack cocaine.
“Technically, I was dead for about two minutes,” says the 19-year-old.
Gribben smoked it through a pipe he got from the outreach van.
The cargo van makes the harm-reduction rounds through Whitehorse six nights a week, its workers handing out food and drink, medical care, blankets, counselling, and harm-reduction devices like condoms, needles, spoons and crack pipes.
“They consciously set us up for failure,” says Gribben.
His girlfriend, 20-year-old Felicia Gordon, another regular visitor to the Blue Feather Youth Centre in downtown Whitehorse, vividly remembers the endorphin rush of smoking rock not for its intensity, but its brevity.
“From the moment you breathe out, you instantly come down,” says Gordon.
“That’s your high: being paranoid and worried that you’re not going to get any more.”
But they did get more.
For three years, they fed a sporadic, sometimes 60-rock-a-day habit thanks to a family connection, and the avails of hustling what they didn’t smoke.
Fifty bucks would buy them a small bag of cocaine.
Using baking soda, water and a flame, the kids made that into $80: four rocks with a street value of $20 each.
And all that time, they used pipes from the outreach van, says the young couple, now clean and with a newborn baby of their own.
The van, part of a comprehensive harm-reduction strategy that three organizations recently vowed to ramp up, should not be giving crack pipes to kids, says Blue Feather Executive Director Vicki Durrant, who alleges a group of teens came into the centre one day laden with supplies to cook, smoke and inject street drugs.
“I believe in harm reduction, but I think, especially with youth, you have to say ‘no.’
“I don’t want to see you die. I don’t want to see you hurt yourself. Giving them a crack pipe so that their lungs don’t hurt, to me, is not helping them. It’s just prolonging their slow death process and I can’t support that.”
Is the government morally or legally complicit in Gribben’s overdose?
“I’m just wondering, because he was provided with a pipe that almost killed him, that assisted…I wonder if legally, then, his family could hold the government accountable,” asks Durrant.
“So the pipe made him OD?” retorts Patricia Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, a primary administrator of the outreach van.
Harm-reduction naysayers used to argue such measures are immoral; later, they asserted they encourage drug use.
Now that these rationale have been largely defeated, opponents are attempting a legal tack, but the argument is bogus, says Bacon, who points to the Canadian HIV/AIDS legal network’s opinion.
The group, which analyses HIV/AIDS law and policy, concludes administrators of harm reduction are not legally responsible for the potential harm of drug use.
“I can give someone a clean needle or not,” says Bacon. “They may or may not overdose, but it won’t be the needle that causes them to overdose.”
But Durrant is not the only critic who questions the government’s moral and legal liability.
Early in March, a board for the United Nations renewed its condemnation of Insite, Canada’s harm-reduction jewel, the only medically-supervised safe-injection site on the continent, located on the downtown East Side of Vancouver.
“The distribution of drug paraphernalia, including crack pipes, to drug users in Ottawa and Toronto, as well as the presence of drug injection sites is also in violation of the international drug control treaties, to which Canada is a party,” stated the UN annual report in a Canadian Press story.
“Who then, becomes liable?” asks Margret Kopala, director of research and policy development for the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies and author of an article calling on the federal government to pull the plug on safe-injection sites.
“That’s just begging, it seems to me, for a lawsuit.”
“The Canadian Centre for Policy Studies is a non-partisan, not-for-profit institution dedicated to the advancement of freedom, security and prosperity through the promotion of sensible conservative policies that meet the challenges of a modern and complex world,” reads its website.
Kopala’s research shows harm reduction has failed in countries as liberal as Sweden, and they are moving toward policies like compulsory treatment, and, one of her favourites, the “three tokes law.”
If enacted, a youngster’s first offense would net a call to the folks; the second, a fine; the third, jail.
The centre, fundamentally opposed to decriminalization and harm reduction, does not advocate for the harsh legal treatment of drug users, but for the use of drug courts, one of which was recently announced for Whitehorse.
Dan Rather called Insite “state-assisted suicide,” according to Kopala’s paper.
Canadians do not prefer harm reduction to other methods when combating other addictions such as alcoholism, she says.
“Harm reduction is such a seductive term. Obviously, we all want to see people not harming themselves. The problem is, where do you draw the line? The experience in Alcoholics Anonymous is very instructive. They have a term called ‘enabling.’
“If, in the end, all you’re doing is letting him off the hook about his drinking habit.
“I would argue that it simply helps them get worse.”
Kopala also denounces the collateral damage of harm reduction in the form of dirty needles and used crack pipes, potentially infected with blood-borne disease, that litter streets, alleys, and, in the case of Whitehorse, the riverbank.
Gordon’s foot was pierced once when she stepped on a used syringe.
She required repeated testing over several months to ensure she was not infected.
“They (the outreach van and Blood Ties) are the ones putting out the trash…so, therefore their responsibility is to clean it up,” she says.
Harm reduction cuts the risks of overdose, potential injuries resulting from the use of homemade devices, and the spread of disease, say proponents.
Therefore, it saves millions of tax dollars in health care.
“That’s my job. That’s it,” says Bacon, who resents efforts to saddle the van with responsibility for prevention, ratting out drug dealers and policing children.
And she refutes claims that the outreach van cavalierly hands out drug-use paraphernalia to minors.
“We don’t just go, ‘Oh, Jane, here’s your pipe. Have a nice day,’” says Bacon.
The outreach van, the route of which is confidential, visits regular hangouts, hotels and residences.
It can be summoned via cellphone, a number for which is provided on key rings handed out with crack kits and needles.
But a first-time user, especially a child, would receive “intensive” intervention.
Workers would ask the teen about herself, why she wants to use drugs, and make her aware of the implications.
If, after the lengthy talk, she still insists, she gets a pipe “absolutely,” because the van does not discriminate based on age, race, sex or orientation.
“That’s not palatable for anybody,” says Bacon.
“But at the same time, what’s worse, what’s even less palatable for harm reduction advocates is the idea that you, who are maybe 30 years old, have the right to a clean needle, but a 15-year-old doesn’t. That’s ridiculous.”
Partially funded by government of Yukon, the outreach van is administered by Blood Ties, Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services, Kwanlin Dun Health Centre and Kaushee’s Place, a local safe house for women and children.
Recently, Blood Ties, Many Rivers and the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon circled the wagons against a conservative push to quash harm reduction, announcing a new harm-reduction network that would advocate for the health and dignity of drug users.
“The real measure of human dignity is not how much compassion we shower on the victim or the sick person, but how much regard we show for their capacity to think and be responsible for themselves,” argues Kopala.