Drug use and homelessness go together in many cities around the world. The Canadian city of Vancouver, for many years a shining example of sensible drug policy, is no exception. Now, however, it’s the city’s much-vaunted needle exchange programme that is being thrown onto the streets according to Cindy Harnett of the Times Colonist.
The Vancouver needle exchange is especially well known among HIV researchers; it was among the first to show that giving out sterile injecting equipment prevents the spread of HIV, and among the first to eat its claims as HIV rose steeply even among needle exchange clients. It a long and interesting story (see shamless plug at the bottom of this post), but most public health officials agree that needle exchanges help keep people alive and disease-free, while making it more likely they’ll get into treatment and off drugs.
Public health officials are one thing, the Public is another. Many Canadians, including an increasingly conservative government spurred on by international police bodies, are uncomfortable about treating addiction as a health issue. So when the needle exchange was evicted from its current spot and decided to set up together with an array of other social services, there was a predictable outbreak of footstamping. It didn’t help that the proposed site was across the street from a primary school, and that there didn’t seem to have been a whole lot of consultation. More fulminating.
The irony of this is that what the punters object to is the idea that they are paying to maintain people in their addiction. Which takes us back to the addiction and homelessness thing. Homelessness and lack of access to basic social services make it more difficult for people to kick their addictions. Putting the needle exchange in a single centre with those other services will make it easier for junkies to access services that help them stop being junkies. Giving out needles just makes it more likely that Canadian taxpayers won’t have to pay for a lifetime supply of expensive anti-retorviral drugs for people once they stop shooting up. Making the needle exchange homeless is bad for junkies, but it is also bad for people who would like to see less addiction and lower public spending in Vancouver.