The Vancouver Police Department says it has no plans to investigate a non-profit society for selling crack cocaine pipes from two vending machines located in the Downtown Eastside.
The PHS Community Services Society, which also co-manages the Insite supervised drug injection site, installed the vending machines eight months ago and has sold an average of 700 pipes per week for 25 cents each.
“While there may be sections within the Criminal Code [of Canada] that could be applicable to the sale of such an item, the police have to consider the likelihood of a conviction and public interest when contemplating any investigation or recommending charges,” said Const. Brian Montague, a VPD liaison officer, in an email to the Courier. “At this time, it is being considered a public health matter and there are no plans to begin a criminal investigation.”
Section 462 of the Criminal Code says anyone who knowingly “promotes or sells instruments or literature for illicit drug uses is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction.”
Montague said he was reluctant to engage in a debate about public health but the federal minister of public safety and emergency preparedness said the government disagrees with the “promoters of this initiative.”
In an emailed statement to the Courier, Steven Blaney said “we believe law enforcement should enforce the law. While the NDP and Liberals would prefer that doctors hand out heroin and needles to those suffering from addiction, this government supports treatment that ends drug use, including limiting access to drug paraphernalia by young people. We will continue to protect Canadian families and communities against the harmful effects of dangerous and illegal drugs.”
Mark Townsend of the PHS Community Services Society said the vending machines were installed to ensure clean pipes are available to drug users. One machine is in the lobby of the PHS’s Drug Users Resource Centre in the 400-block Cordova Street and a second one operates out of The Shaldon Hotel, near Carrall and Hastings.
Townsend pointed out his society and others agencies, including Vancouver Coastal Health, have distributed free crack pipes and smoking supplies for several years — and still do. But, he said, there has never been a consistent supply of clean pipes, which can sell for five dollars or more on the street.
“We had to find a way of augmenting the need,” said Townsend as he showed the Courier the machine at the Cordova location. “We’re trying to make sure that there is enough [pipes] out there because there is not enough, despite peoples’ best efforts.”
The primary goal is to ensure a crack cocaine smoker has clean equipment to limit or erase further health problems — including infectious disease transmission — aside from the obvious health danger of smoking an illegal substance purchased on the street.
Townsend pointed to a 2009 study published in the Canadian Medical Association journal that revealed a spike in HIV rates in the city’s crack smokers. Study researchers tracked 1,048 crack users over a nine-year period and found that 137 became HIV positive. The reason for the increase was not definitive but researchers said it could be attributed to wounds produced around the mouth when smoking crack from a pipe.
Vancouver Coastal Health launched an experiment a few years ago where it distributed 65,000 crack cocaine smoking kits, which included mouth pieces, push sticks, brass screens, heat-resistant glass stems, alcohol swabs and educational materials in the Downtown Eastside.
The health agency’s evaluation of the experiment concluded the kits did not trigger more drug activity but reduced burns to crack smokers and decreased the reliance on used smoking equipment, according to Dr. Patricia Daly.
The evaluation discovered that burns to the mouths of crack smokers dropped from 25 per cent to 15 per cent, and cuts from 18 per cent to 12 per cent.
Daly told the Courier in October the glass stems were key to the kits, noting there was a large outbreak of pneumococcal bacterial infection among crack users in 2006. Health officials believe the infection was related to unsanitary stems, which can break and cause cuts to the lips and face.