Why do we still believe that letting drug addicts "hit rock bottom" is a good thing?

Our densely populated, low-income neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver has 16,000 residents and about 6,000 injection drug users. Day after day, I’ve seen kind, funny and gentle people lose their families, get sicker, become more isolated a

Including people living with addiction into society should not be revolutionary thinking in 2013. However, in many ways the addict is the modern-day “nigger”, a term used to dehumanise, alienate, torture and abuse a group of other human beings. Today, people who use drugs – “junkies” – are expected to suffer, then blamed when they do, and if they die there is almost a collective sigh of relief.

Understanding the work that my organisation, PHS, does with addicts on the streets in Vancouver can best be explained by introducing you to one of my teachers. Tilly was a waif-like, 40-year-old aboriginal woman who I met in my early twenties. Her hollow cheeks and deep-set dark eyes were childlike, imploring and innocent – in spite of her “experience”. Locked in a room and malnourished as a child, Tilly was addicted to prescription pills by the age of 11. By the time she was 15 she had tried to end her life by slitting her throat with a kitchen knife.

When I met Tilly she was working in the sex trade, injecting heroin and cocaine, and drinking. One night she was raped and beaten, and as I held her in my lap, bloodied and broken, I rocked her like a tiny bird. She told me through her sobs that it was her fault. I felt her emptiness and I understood her cries. Hers were not the cries of a criminal but of a wounded soul who felt her life was worthless.

Our densely populated, low-income neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver has 16,000 residents and about 6,000 injection drug users. Here, I started running a 70-room housing project in 1991, and for 23 years I have seen the human fallout of our collective ignorance. Day after day, I’ve seen kind, funny and gentle people lose their families, get sicker, become more isolated and die.

The people I have come to know and grown to love have helped me heal myself. My own white, privileged family was not unfamiliar with tragedy. My mother suffered her own pain and left us when I was a child. I knew what it was like to feel empty and alone.

We hear all the time how addicts are selfish liars who steal from their families, cause pain, smash car windows to steal things and get into fights. We have created brutalising conditions that result in addicts being vilified and that cause enormous harm. However, I have also experienced a unique window into the resilience, humanity and strength of people trying to survive while actively addicted.

Throughout the 1990s, alongside my partner and my colleagues, I had to go against the common logic of the day as we wrestled over how to help. We intuitively gravitated to the belief that people might be able to do better if survival wasn’t so hard, and over the years we have succeeded in creating spaces that are tolerant, respectful and inclusive – where people struggling with addiction can live, find social membership, a sense of belonging and the basics.

This flew in the face of the received wisdom that said people had to “hit rock bottom” or society was somehow “encouraging them”.

As the death toll from drugs mounted in 1997, we rebranded our community “the Killing Fields”. The number of drug users developing HIV was on a par with Botswana; meanwhile, more than 400 drug overdoses happened in our province in just one year. The level of grief was profound, so we flew in experts from around the world to talk about things that we could try: supervised injection sites, heroin maintenance, harm reduction.

Drug users themselves used their voices and parent groups spoke out. Brave politicians stood up and some lost their careers. Gradually the public became educated through extensive media coverage and community debates. By 2003, the tide had shifted and on 21 September we opened North America’s first legally sanctioned supervised injection site, or “Insite”, as a partnership between our non-profit organisation and our local health authority. We saw people come in to what felt like a sanctuary – out of the back alleys to indoors, where users could inject their drugs under the supervision of a nurse.

Over these past ten years almost two million injections have happened here, and 14,000 individuals have come in. Each year, 400 referrals are made into treatment. The staff revive, on average, 40 people a month who overdose and not one person has died.

Today, we have a more sophisticated understanding that an individual, while addicted, still has the right to live. We have created places like our dental clinic, art gallery and bank, and social enterprises that are reshaping the landscape. For example, with over 4,500 members, our community bank (a partnership with Vancity Credit Union) offers savings and checking accounts to people who are unwelcome, banned or followed by security guards in conventional financial institutions. New units of housing have been funded by our provincial government, targeting the most vulnerable homeless and addicted.

Health-care services have been established that are relevant to people actively using drugs. Social enterprises have been created to give people – addicted or not – jobs, at the vintage clothing store, chocolate and coffee roasters, art studio and retail store, commercial laundry and pest-control company.

For those of us who remember how dark it felt 20 years ago, there is much to celebrate in Vancouver in 2013. People in our community are living ten years longer.

Tilly was kind, sensitive, gentle and generous, but in the end she died of Aids because no one had cared enough to make sure she had access to a clean syringe. As a society, we told her that her life didn’t matter and she believed us.

It’s time to stop punishing and start creating solutions to the walls of intolerance and hatred we’ve built. These steps, though seemingly small, can create a new social context, one that redefines the addict from a non-person to a person, a criminal to a citizen, someone “diseased” to someone who just needs love, belonging and a community, just like me.

Liz Evans is the founder and executive director of PHS Community Services Society, which helps drug users in Vancouver

Drug users at Insite, a legal supervised injection site in Vancouver. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.