Of all the things a person can get out of a vending machine these days, this may be the most surprising. Two vending machines located in downtown Vancouver dispense clean crack pipes at a cost of one quarter apiece.
The vending machines are located in the Downtown Eastside – one in a resource centre for drug users and the other at a market on a street known as Vancouver's skid row.
The vending machines have actually been in action for about six months, but only recently captured widespread attention. Vice wrote on the crack vending machine last week, and Time.com jumped on the story on Monday, proclaiming its surprise that Canada's first crack pipe vending machine wasn't located in Toronto.
That, of course, is a Rob Ford reference. Although Vancouver now has its own claim to Ford, after the Toronto mayor was reported to have drank heavily and acted oddly during an after-hours drinking session at a Vancouver pub two weekends ago.
Vancouver is at the forefront of Canada's harm-reduction strategy. Ten years ago InSite launched the controversial supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, giving drug users a clean, less harmful venue to inject heroin. The crack pipe vending machines are supposed to employ the same harm-reduction strategy.
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“We’re not quite there yet with pipes, where we are with needles,” Drug Resource Centre director Kailin See told The Province. “But to us, it’s all the same. We need to ensure people aren’t spreading diseases, and keeping people’s mouths and bodies as healthy as possible.”
But even the concept of giving away crack pipes isn't a new one. A pilot project run by Vancouver Coastal Health in 2011 and 2012 distributed more than 100,000 free safer smoking kits, included crack pipes, in downtown Vancouver.
On the outside, perhaps the pipes project is similar to giving away needles for free. (Crack pipes typically sell for around $5 and $10, so selling them for a quarter is essentially giving them away for free.)
The key intentions are the same: avoid the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV, and save the health system money in the long run.
Much like InSite, the crack pipe project has its detractors. David Berner, executive director of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, expressed his frustration in a blog post, calling them “destructive initiatives.”
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney also opposes the vending machines, a stance that would fall in line with the Conservative government's opposition to InSite's harm-reduction strategy.
On the other side of the spectrum are studies, such as this one from the Urban Health Research Initiative, which suggest that health-focused policies have been more effective than law enforcement measures at reducing illicit drug use.
But there seems to be something missing from the crack pipe project - a conscience inherent in the InSite program.
The underlying point of a harm reduction strategy is helping people make good choices and move the community in the right direction, even if individuals aren’t cleaned up entirely.
If drug users want clean needles, they have to go to a clinic and interact, even if only briefly and innocuously, with healthcare workers with improvement in mind.
Dealing with a vending machine removes that interaction – it removes the soul from the project. Users are getting the goods without the message.
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