Vancouver losing Its war on illicit drugs

published on November 24, 2009

(Vancouver) – The first comprehensive report on the epidemic of hard drug use in Vancouver shows that the federal government’s anti-drug strategy is failing and that new, innovative policies must be implemented to reduce the associated health, crime and financial burdens borne by residents.

Researchers at the Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI) at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) undertook the extensive study in response to the HIV epidemic and other health and social harms resulting from Vancouver’s drug market, including the recent rise in drug-related homicides.

“Vancouver’s hard drug market operates extremely efficiently and it is remarkable how easy it is for young people to access cocaine and methamphetamine,” notes co-author Dr. Evan Wood, a BC-CfE researcher.

Researchers found:

  • Steep increases in the use of crack cocaine over the last decade
  • Significant increases in crystal methamphetamine use, especially among street-involved youth
  • Remarkably easy access to drugs such as cocaine and crystal meth
  • Reduced drug injection rates but high mortality among injection drug users due to long-term HIV infection
  • Dramatic reductions in the sharing of syringes and related HIV and hepatitis C infections among injection drug users

Adult drug users in Vancouver reported rapid access to cocaine, with approximately 90% of respondents stating that they could obtain cocaine or crack within 10 minutes. Crystal methamphetamine was also reported to be readily available to street-involved youth, with almost 60% of youth reporting being able to obtain the drug within 10 minutes. The reported availability of these so-called hard drugs is comparable to the reported availability of marijuana among these populations.

“Experience throughout the globe has demonstrated that the market effects of supply and demand make it simply impossible to stem the flow of drugs when there is ongoing demand, and Vancouver is no exception,” Wood added. “All cities in North America are awash in drugs despite massive investments in law enforcement, so we really need politicians to begin discussing alternative regulatory models or the situation will continue to deteriorate.”

The 52-page Drug Situation in Vancouver report, now available online at, includes detailed information on drug use trends, drug availability, HIV rates and mortality rates among people in the Vancouver area who use hard drugs such as heroin, crack and methamphetamine.

“We’ve seen a 10-fold increase in the use of crack cocaine in the last decade, while drug injecting rates have decreased,” explains study co-author Dr. Thomas Kerr. “Methamphetamine use and availability have also jumped markedly, especially among street-involved youth.”

Although the report demonstrates significant positive effects of the city’s harm reduction programs, including dramatic reductions in infectious disease transmission and drug overdose rates, mortality rates remain elevated primarily as a result of HIV infections acquired approximately a decade ago. The rate of death among male injection drug users is 10 times higher than the general male population in British Columbia, and the death rate for female injectors is 22 times higher than that of the general female population in the province.

“While there have certainly been recent successes from a public health perspective, we are continuing to pay a price for past inaction,” Wood adds. “Hopefully, politicians are becoming more open to incorporating scientific information when developing policy responses to the drug problem.”


About the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS:

The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) is Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS research, treatment and education facility. The BC-CfE is based at St Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care, a teaching hospital of the University of British Columbia. The BC-CfE is dedicated to improving the health of British Columbians with HIV through developing, monitoring and disseminating comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related diseases.

About The Urban Health Research Initiative:

The Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI), established in 2007, is a program of the BC-CfE. UHRI’s mission is to improve the health of individuals and communities through research to inform policy. UHRI research programs are based on a network of studies that have been developed to help identify and understand the many factors that affect the health of urban populations, with a focus on substance use, infectious diseases, the urban environment and homelessness.

For additional information contact:

Ian Noble
Karyo Edelman
T 604.623.3007 ext. 300
F 604.687.4304
M 604.809.9650″‘
E [email protected]