Last year when I heard that the city of Vancouver’s public health authority had announced plans for a pilot project to hand free crack pipes to drug addicts, it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. Then I learned that cities like Toronto and Winnipeg have been doing it for years, and the gag reflex kicked in. How dire has the state of modern society become that we’ve resorted to handing drug paraphernalia out like lollipops?
But however uncomfortable the thought of crack smoking makes you feel, if it stops addicts using dirty needles to inject drugs and lowers the risk of spreading diseases like HIV, surely it’s a sensible move right? This isn’t a view shared by all. Harm reduction programs for drug users, such as needle exchanges – where used needles can be swapped for safe, sterilised ones – inhabit a chequered past with governments across the globe. In the USA, from 1988 to 2009 it was illegal to use federal funds to support initiatives like needle exchanges, and these schemes are still met with strong opposition from many.
Why? People fear that offering access to drug equipment will increase drug use, that it’s synonymous with endorsing drug use, that it will lead to filthy, discarded syringes littering their local community and so on. Legislative bodies are clearly reluctant to enter this moral battleground.
This week Sir Richard Branson waded into our country’s age-old drugs debate, with a speech to the Home Affairs Committee on how current policies aren’t working, and drugs should be regulated rather than criminalised. The issue of whether or not users should be slung into jail is a separate one, however his thoughts on looking at these people in terms of health and how we can reduce the damage their destructive lifestyles cause, are pertinent.
For me, the case for drug harm reduction becomes very clear when you look at the statistics. According to a 2011 report from the National Aids Trust (NAT) one in 10 new HIV infections worldwide occurs in an injecting drug user, and three million of these users are living with HIV worldwide. So whatever your views on drug use, and whether it’s morally acceptable to supply addicts with the equipment they need to fuel their habit, practically it makes a lot of sense.
I’m proud to be able to say that the UK is seen as something of a pioneer in establishing injection harm reduction schemes. This may be down to our raging drugs problems, but hey, at least we’re working on it! There are 77 countries with needle exchange programmes up and running, but setting them up isn’t always easy. Certainly in the USA they remain contentious, and in some states are run illegally.
Suddenly the thought of dishing out free crack pipes doesn’t sound so abhorrent – it’s really just an extension of the work already being done worldwide to minimise the harmful effects of drug injection. I can see how directly providing equipment for drug use becomes a politically charged issue, but drug use is a part of our society whether we like it or not, and if we can make it just a tiny bit safer and decrease the risk of spreading diseases like HIV, I think we’ve achieved something good.