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The numbers underscore growing problems for heroin users, said Dave Murray, a volunteer at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Murray himself used heroin for 15 years. “I lost everything I owned. I generally went into a ditch,” he said, speaking over his cellphone as he walked through the Downtown Eastside, where he lives.
He gave up heroin three or four years ago and now advocates for better services for heroin users.
Based on what he sees on the streets, Murray said, he believes that more young people have been doing heroin in Vancouver in recent years. And he said it’s getting harder for them to find help, especially since the closure of the Miracle Valley substance-abuse treatment centre outside Mission last year. “There are not enough treatment spaces, that’s for sure,” he said.
Heroin users typically wait one to three months for a spot in a provincially funded treatment centre, Murray said. “What do we do with the person while they’re waiting?” he asked. A user who has gone through detox should have a “seamless” entry into a residential treatment facility to have any chance of getting clean, he said. “If the person goes back out into the community, chances are he will fail.”
After finishing a treatment program, users can stay at a recovery house—a residence where they can try to get back on their feet, find a job, and get away from old habits. But Murray said many recovery houses in B.C. are “terribly run”, and recovering users there live in “poor conditions”. Instead of closing, Murray said, Insite should be expanded. The centre has room for only 12 injectors at a time—hardly enough for the neighbourhood’s estimated 5,000 injection-drug users.
Murray is also troubled by the fast-rising number of heroin-related arrests by Vancouver police. He thinks it suggests there’s a new generation of heroin users out there who aren’t showing up yet in other data. It also means the city is flouting its Four Pillars drug strategy of prioritizing treatment, prevention, and harm reduction rather than criminalizing users, he said.
“They’re putting more money into enforcement; they’re building more prisons. Vancouver talks about Four Pillars. It’s one pillar and three toothpicks. Three-quarters of the money goes to enforcement,” he said.
Vancouver police didn’t respond to a Straight request for comment.
Other provinces in Canada are also seeing a growing heroin problem. In Toronto, the portion of Grade 7 to 12 students who reported using heroin in the previous year almost doubled, from 0.6 to 1.1 percent, between 2001 and 2007, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
But Canada’s heroin woes pale beside those of Afghanistan itself. It has an estimated one million opiate addicts—eight percent of the population. It’s another way the fates of ordinary Canadians and Afghans have become joined in the past 10 years. After all, a poppy palace doesn’t come cheap.
This story was done with research support from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.