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Fighting for Space: new book looks at Vancouver's history with addiction

Last Updated Nov 11, 2017 at 7:51 am PDT

FILE - The opioid crisis in continues to disproportionally affect vulnerable B.C. First Nations people. (iStock Photo)

The number of opioid-related deaths in BC this year has surpassed statistics for all of 2016

The new book is in stores right now

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – With BC having already set a record for opioid-related deaths this year, a new book looks at how Vancouver has dealt with addiction and what it can teach other cities.

In Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction, Georgia Straight reporter Travis Lupick details how the Downtown Eastside dealt with the overdose crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s. He says it was the arrival of fentanyl in 2014 that inspired him to write the book.

“Fentanyl has completely changed the game and our response needs be something completely different,” he argues. “We’re not really having that conversation and I think we have to start. We need to be talking about legalizing drugs, regulating supply, and really moving addiction into the healthcare system.”

Lupick also details the origins of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and a premise that has since been applied elsewhere. “It is not necessarily drugs that hurt people the most but rather society’s criminalization of those drugs, that it’s actually prohibition that hurts people.”

The book also details how places like Seattle, Sacramento, Toledo, Raleigh, Miami, and San Francisco are dealing with the overdose crisis. “There’s something that cities right across the continent can learn from Vancouver’s experience and save everybody some time and save some lives.”

NEWS 1130‘s John Ackermann spoke with Lupick earlier this week. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

JA: What made you write the book?

TL: “I didn’t get to work writing the book until the holiday break of 2016. The ideas were starting to percolate through 2014 when the Portland Hotel Society, the non-profit housing provider in Vancouver, found itself in a bit of a financial scandal and the executive team there was eventually forced to resign. It meant that story was coming to an end. The same year, a notable activist on the Downtown Eastside, Bud Osborn passed away. A few months later, Libby Davies, who represented the Downtown Eastside in Ottawa resigned from politics after 17 years. It all felt like these stories were coming to a natural end and that they needed to be put down somewhere.”

JA: One of the things I like about the book is it’s based around this issue but you also have these characters coming in and out of the story as well. Is that something you were mindful of as part of your process?

TL: “Well, it takes a village. There are a few key characters that the book follows: Ann Livingston, founding member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and Liz Evans, founder of the Portland Hotel Society. But, of course, they had help. A cast of hundreds really. And while I couldn’t include all of them, I included quite a few.”

JA: Reading the book, it seems like Vancouver is a test case of sorts, at least in North America, when it comes to dealing with drug addiction. Did you take away anything in terms of what Vancouver could teach other cities about drugs and about fentanyl specifically?

TL: “That’s really one of the biggest reasons I wrote the book. Those stories I mentioned coming to an end in 2014 were happening at the same time that fentanyl arrived in Vancouver and across North America. So, I was thinking Vancouver’s been through a crisis like this before. Maybe while we’re responding to the fentanyl [crisis], there’s something cities right across the continent can learn from Vancouver’s experience and save everybody some time and save some lives.”

JA: Overdose deaths are up again… It’s a big question, but what do you think should happen now and where can we go from here?

TL: “Well, fentanyl has changed the game. The crisis that Vancouver dealt with in the 90s and 2000s was a potent supply of heroin. Fentanyl is more difficult. We’re not really talking about the solutions that I think need to happen to reverse how quickly overdose deaths are rising right now. We need to be talking about legalizing drugs, regulating supply, and really moving addiction into the healthcare system. I know it sounds radical, but the problem is radical. Fentanyl has completely changed the game and our response needs to be something completely different. We’re not really having that conversation yet and I think we have to start.”

JA: One thing that new federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said [last] weekend, and maybe he’s said it before, but, at the BC NDP convention in Victoria, he proposed the decriminalizing of all drugs. Is that the way to go?

TL: “Well, I’m going a little bit further than Mr. Singh. I was actually with him when he said that. We took a walk along the Downtown Eastside together a couple of days ago, a few days ago now. I understand what Mr. Singh is saying, we need to decriminalize drugs to remove stigma, remove criminal penalties, and treat addiction as a healthcare issue. I want to go a little bit further and fully legalize and regulate because Mr. Singh’s policies [still] leave fentanyl on the street, they leave fentanyl in the hands of dealers. It would save lives to decriminalize and remove the stigma that he talks about, and maybe that’s an easier policy for him to sell in politics, but to solve the fentanyl crisis we are going to have to go even further.”

Fighting for Space is in stores now.