War on Drugs failing to limit drug use in Vancouver

published on June 24, 2013

New report finds declines in drug use associated with harm reduction services, not law enforcement efforts

Vancouver, BC (June 24, 2013): A comprehensive report on the drug situation in Vancouver shows health-focused policies have been more effective than federal law enforcement measures at reducing illicit drug use and improving public health and safety.

dsiv2013-frontResearchers at the Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI) at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS compiled 15 years of data in response to the ongoing public and individual health-related harms resulting from illicit drug use, including HIV and hepatitis C transmission.

“Drug trends in Vancouver are shifting, with fewer people injecting drugs and more people ceasing their use, a result of the innovative harm reduction and addiction treatment programs implemented,” said Dr. Thomas Kerr, report co-author and UHRI co-director. “It’s important policymakers at all levels of government take note of this evidence and focus efforts on approaches proven to be more effective. Continuing to invest in failed policies like the war on drugs does little to reduce health and social harms.”

The Drug Situation in Vancouver report includes detailed information on drug use trends, drug availability, HIV rates, and behaviours among some of the city’s most vulnerable people who use illicit drugs. The analysis found:

  • Fewer people using injection drugs
  • Significant decrease in syringe sharing and related HIV and hepatitis C transmissions
  • Increase in drug cessation and access to addiction treatment
  • Unchanged ease of access to and affordability of illicit drugs

Among people who use drugs in Vancouver, methadone maintenance treatment increased from 11.7 per cent in 1996 to 54.5 per cent in 2008, remaining stable since. In addition, reports of difficulty accessing addiction treatment dropped from 19.9 per cent in 1996 to as low as 3.2 per cent in 2006, and has remained below 1996 levels. There was a corresponding upward trend of injection drug use cessation during a similar period, with a rate of just 0.4 per cent in 1996 compared to 46.6 per cent in 2011. Conversely, researchers found between 2000 and 2011 illicit drugs remained easily accessible and prices were stable.

“The availability of drugs in Vancouver is troubling, however, consistent with international trends highlighting the overall success of market factors in making drugs freely and easily available,” said Dr. Evan Wood, report co-author and Canada Research Chair in Inner City Medicine at the University of British Columbia. “While there have been public health benefits of the harm reduction strategies, the best strategy is to expand evidence-based addiction treatments to reduce demand for drugs and reduce the size of the drug market.”

While there has been an overall decline in illicit drug use since 2007, there has been an increase in the use of some drugs. Among street-involved youth, for instance, there is a high rate of crystal methamphetamine use, with rates of injection having doubled since 2010.

“Needle exchanges and the supervised injection facility have proven to save lives, but drug use trends are changing and policies and programs should reflect these changes,” said Lorna Bird, a drug user and member of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. “We need more harm reduction interventions, like safer crack smoking kits, supervised consumption facilities for people who smoke illicit drugs, and programs focused on at-risk youth.”

Among the key ongoing factors contributing to high-risk behaviours associated with illicit drug use is the prevalence of unstable housing among people who use drugs, which continues to be between 50 and 70 per cent. Unstable housing includes homelessness, shelters, and Single Room Occupancy hotels.

“Homelessness and unstable housing amplify harms experienced by drug users,” said Dave Hamm, board member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). “Quality affordable housing is critical to reducing the harms associated with using currently illicit drugs and connecting drug users to supports and programs that will help them live healthy, productive lives.”

The 56-page Drug Situation in Vancouver report was released at Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver and is available online at http://bccsu.ca.


About the BC 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 and is internationally recognized as an innovative world leader in combating HIV/AIDS and related diseases. 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 works in close collaboration with key provincial stakeholders, including health authorities, health care providers, academics from other institutions, and the community to decrease the health burden of HIV and AIDS. By developing, monitoring, and disseminating comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related illnesses, the BC-CfE helps improve the health of British Columbians living with HIV.

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. Led by principal investigators Evan Wood and Thomas Kerr, UHRI is 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 or to request interviews, please contact:
Kevin Hollett
Mobile: 778-918-1537
Email: [email protected]