Study calls for safe spaces to smoke crack

VANDU operated a safe smoking space on the DTES until it was shut down in 2013. - Saida Saetgareeva
VANDU operated a safe smoking space on the DTES until it was shut down in 2013.  - Saida Saetgareeva
VANDU operated a safe smoking space on the DTES until it was shut down in 2013. – Saida Saetgareeva

For three years, a small, ventilated washroom located in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) was a safe haven for crack cocaine users to smoke in, until it was shut down by health authorities. However, a new paper by SFU and UBC researchers is advocating for the benefits of such a safe space.

Ryan McNeil, an SFU postdoctoral researcher, and William Small, an SFU assistant professor of health sciences, conducted a study on safer smoking rooms (SSR) with the cooperation of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

Titled “We need somewhere to smoke crack,” the study explored how these rooms shape smoking practices, public crack smoking, and related harms. Their findings indicate that SSRs are sought after by crack cocaine users for many benefits.

“Our findings underscore how the [SSR] emerged in response to social violence experienced by people who smoke crack in the local drug scene, and minimized the potential for health and social harms by reshaping the environmental contexts of crack smoking,” said the authors of the study, who represented not only SFU but the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, UBC, and VANDU.

The latter, a social justice group comprised of almost 1,000 drug users and former users, works to improve the health of people who use illicit drugs through user-based peer support. They operated a small, unsanctioned washroom on the DTES, where crack cocaine users could smoke in private.

The study stresses the need to scale up intervention practices and emphasizes how integrating SSR into public health systems, along with social support, has the potential to improve the health and safety of crack-cocaine users.

In December 2013, Vancouver Coastal Health ordered VANDU to shut down the washroom because the organization was operating without an exemption from the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. This forced crack cocaine users to go without the benefits of the SSR.

The president of VANDU, Hugh Lampkin, said in a video for The Province that the SSR provided a safe haven for crack smokers. “It’s our creed, you know, saving lives. And we want to make sure people [. . .] feel safe,” he said.

The SSR allowed users to get off the street while using, offered health care services such as clean smoking devices, and protected them from potential violence and police harassment.

Lampkin explained that the alternative is that people will still use drugs, but in a public or unsafe place.

He continued, “If that person [smoking crack] happens to be a small female or small guy, the chances of the violence occurring goes up exponentially.”

Thomas Kerr, one of the study’s authors, echoed these thoughts in The Province’s video. “By providing an environment where people who use drugs can inhale crack, it’s good for drug users. It protects their health and it’s good for the broader community by bringing people out from public spaces into a healthy environment where we can address their health needs and simultaneously address community safety issues,” he stated.