A few distances apart, two crack pipe vending machines — selling Pyrex crack pipes for 25 cents each — have been installed in Vancouver’s Washington Market by Portland Hotel Society's Drug Users Resource Center (DURC). The Canadian non-profit organization hopes these two polka-dot vending machines will reduce the rates of injury and disease from shared drug paraphernalia by drug users. Reactions to the harm reduction method have put into question whether these machines will lead to a drop in drug rates, or damage the health and safety of individuals.
"For us, this was about increasing access to safer inhalation supplies in the Downtown Eastside,” Kailin See, DURC director, told CTV Vancouver. “They don’t run the risk of then sharing pipes, or pipes that are chipped or broken.” Crack cocaine users who share, or make their own pipes, run the risk of contracting the flu, colds, cold sores, and even the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
These drug users also face the risk of contracting the hepatitis C virus if they share crack pipes with other users. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people can either develop an “acute” infection — a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after exposure — or chronic — a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in the person’s body, possibly leading to liver inflammation, and overall liver damage. Currently, the sharing of needles or other equipment to inject drugs is the most common form of transmission.
Harm reduction strategies, similar to the crack pipe vending machines, were previously taken by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. In 2011, the agency launched a pilot program that aimed to reduce the spread of diseases — such as HIV and hepatitis B and C — by handing out free crack pipes, along with mouthpieces, filters, alcohol swabs, screens and push sticks, the National Post reported. It was the first time that the harm reduction tools were combined in a single kit for crack addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). The DTES community has long been burdened by drug addictions and mental illnesses.
Despite DURC’s initiatives to limit the spread of HIV and other diseases among users, the Canadian federal government has taken a different stance with the new vending machines. “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,” said Steven Blaney, Canada’s minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, in a statement, The Globe and Mail reported.
Advocates for the crack pipe vending machines, like the non-governmental organization (NGO), believe it encourages safe practices, not drug use, showing providing pipes is no different to handing out clean needles to drug users. To further refute the Canadian government’s claims, a study done by the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS revealed, from 1996 to 2011, fewer people from DURC were using drugs and injecting drugs, after the distributing of free pipes to drug addicts. In the U.S. cities like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Miami have also seen benefits from providing drug users with safe practices such as needle exchanges. These exchanges have resulted in a major reduction of needle-caused HIV infections in D.C.
The brightly-colored crack pipe vending machines with “PIPES” written in bold red aim to reduce HIV or hepatitis at just 25 cents a pipe, while medical treatment for those with the diseases can end up costing $250,000. The harm reduction strategy is an innovation that may save lives, believes DURC, but Canada’s conservatives say it does the opposite. The crack pipe vending machines are currently located in Vancouver and may expand to other parts of the country, depending on its success rate.