Over the past week, our beautiful province has been home to one of the biggest vending machine-related controversies in recent memory. No, the Coca-Cola from last September hasn’t returned to the VIU library (although the ones in building 345 continue to live out their second lives as political message boards). The vending machines in question, located in downtown Vancouver, used to sell sandwiches and candy—but now dispense crack pipes. Well, not just crack pipes, but crack-smoking kits, which include mouthpieces, screens, filters, push sticks, and alcohol swabs—nearly everything but the rock itself.
While similar measures have been carried out before in the city, these vending machines have brought the issue of “harm reduction,” the practice of reducing the amount of disease, injury, and death caused by engaging in high risk behaviour like smoking crack, back into the national dialogue. Like anything that runs contrary to our federal government’s positions, having a frank discussion about it could do us some good, collectively. Unfortunately, as you may have already guessed, the recent media attention has also marked a revival of Rob Ford jokes, as the mayor of Toronto paid Metro Vancouver a visit late last month. But let’s ignore Ford forever, please.
The Portland Hotel Society (PHS), who implemented the program, hopes that the machines will curb the spread of the HIV and Hepatitis C, which are all too common among hard drug users. The machines sell crack-smoking kits for 25 cents each and are decorated with colourful polka-dots, which PHS hopes will also help to eliminate the stigma that addicts often feel when searching for or purchasing clean tools. The pipes are made of pyrex, and are more resistant to heat and less likely to break than their glass counterparts. The kits are placed in cardboard containers, so no, they will not break every time the machine dispenses one. While the non-profit group compares the machines to InSite, Vancouver’s safe heroin injection site, the powers that be disagree. Federal health spokesperson Steve Outhouse referred to the comparison between heroin needles and crack pipes as “apples and oranges.”
Whether or not you see addiction as a disease, there are clearly symptoms caused by a large amount of the populace suffering from addiction. These vending machines, as long as they remain used, could have a huge impact on relieving some of these symptoms, most notably the spread of disease. Still, I’m doubtful that these machines could provide a serious solution to the problem itself: addiction. A fully equipped safe smoking site very well could. Not only would clean, safe tools be available, but addicts would be coming into regular contact with addiction specialists and other materials designed to help them. They would be using in a private room with a healthcare specialist, rather than in public, as many addicts are either homeless or in group homes.
Some detractors, such as Health Minister Rona Ambrose, see the vending machines as only perpetuating the problem of addiction. Ambrose told Sun News that “products that legitimize and encourage illegal drug use should not be celebrated.”
But do harm reduction initiatives really encourage drug use? I find it hard to believe that there is anybody out there, silently waiting for an opportunity to ruin their lives, only held back by the lack of clean, cheap crack pipes in the city. Nobody wants to be a drug addict, and I doubt that anybody in that situation right now was led astray by a boxing day sale at the local head shop.
While most discussion drug laws lately have been focused on liquor licensing or the legalization/decriminalization of recreational drugs like marijuana, conversations on drug addiction and harm reduction are often swept under the rug—or under the vending machine.