Vancouver Coastal Health surprised at federal government reaction to free crack pipe plan

Health authority calls plan an extension of other harm reduction programs

A new pilot project to supply free pipes to crack cocaine users in the Downtown Eastside hasnt even begun but is already sparking a lot of attention. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson lashed out last week at the initiative by Vancouver Coastal Health, which will begin distributing new crack pipes sometime this fall as part of its provincially funded harm reduction strategy.

Gavin Wilson, the health authoritys director of public affairs, doesnt see anything controversial about the plan, which is expected to cost between $50,000 and $60,000.

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Its a little surprising, he said. I mean, we already give out needles. The provincial government has been funding mouthpieces for crack pipes for some time, we just havent done the actual pipe. Were really just adding to the material thats already out there.

The project is a response to findings of a recent study from the University of Victorias Centre for Addictions Research that suggests roughly two thirds of Vancouver crack users share pipes and consequently are at a higher risk of catching diseases such as hepatitis C, HIV and respiratory illnesses. While heroin users can get clean needles from needle-exchange programs or Insite, Vancouvers supervised injection site, new pipes arent as readily available and some users resort to using hazardous makeshift pipes from bottles, cans or pieces of metal.

Part of the problem now is that people are using makeshift glass pipes that shatter when they heat up, said Dr. Patricia Daly, the regional health authoritys chief medical officer. That was one of the problems that was found. They were exploding and leading to cuts. One of the way disease can be transmitted is if people gets cuts in their mouths, that can allow organisms to enter.

Along with helping prevent the spread of communicable diseases through blood and saliva, she said special screen filters would help prevent respiratory hazards.

People have been using steel wool in a makeshift way which was also quite risky because it could be inhaled.

The success of the program could depend largely on the response by police, according to a man who offered to sell the Courier crack cocaine on a recent visit to the area.

It seems like a good idea because there are way more people smoking rock these days, and some pipes are pretty nasty, but in my experience the cops really like to bust and steal peoples pipes too, said Tony, who declined to give his last name. Seems kind of crazy to me to have the government pay for pipes when theyre also paying people to break them, but hey, Ill take still take it. I keep losing mine and I dont want to waste more money on pipes all the time.

Daly said she expects police officers patrolling the troubled neighbourhood will support the new program.

One of the things we did as part of the planning for the pilot is we entered in discussions with the Vancouver Police Department so that they are aware we are undertaking this project and that it is a public health initiative that we intend to formally evaluate, said Daly. I think it is important if you are going to have an initiative like this that they are aware of it so we can address any questions or concerns they have about it. I think from the Vancouver Police point of view, they want to support public health research initiatives.

Currently only Calgary and Winnipeg provide free crack pipes to residents. Ottawa city council voted to end a similar program in 2007 over complaints that it fostered addiction.

Twitter: @flematic

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