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On Making ‘Crackdown,’ a Podcast from the Trenches of the Overdose Crisis

It’s made by drug users, covering the drug war as war correspondents.

Garth Mullins 27 Sep 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Garth Mullins is the host of Crackdown podcast.

I squint into my laptop and read the script into the mic. Every couple of lines, I trip on my words and curse. We just finished writing and rewriting this part of the script 20 minutes ago. My voice is already dry and scratchy.

Crackdown, which I make with a group of drug user activists, a few radio producers and a research scientist, is a podcast about the overdose crisis. We’ve done stories on policing, housing, gender, blame and drug user activism. We’ve only been going since January, but the project has taken me to Portugal and Scotland. Making it can bring me back to some pretty bleak places. I used heroin for over a decade, and I’m on methadone now. Remembering dope-sickness, lost friends and arrests — my voice gets a little choked up sometimes. And, methadone makes your mouth dry. So I stop, take a breath and have a sip of water.

I start reading again. I should be hearing my voice in the headphones, but there’s only a quiet hiss. Crawling on hands and knees, I follow the cable under the table. I look up and there’s my producer Sam, doing the same thing — on his hands and knees. Under the table, we laugh. We’ve both made radio and played in bands for years, so we’re pretty used to this routine.

The tangle of black mic cables eventually gives up its secret — a little box where the signal dies. We fix it. I sit back down and pick up the script.

Producer Lisa Hale calls a stop. She asks me to retake the last part. It’s a bit tricky to read a script and not sound like some formal news presenter. Lisa tells me I am not sounding like myself — too formal — more Mansbridge than Mullins. Sam cues up a clip from an interview we did with Jay Slaunwhite. This episode is going to be about how the housing and overdose crises each make the other worse. Jay lived at the Balmoral Hotel, and wound up becoming the SRO’s naloxone superhero in 2016. The clip rolls and I read: “Jay says that year was really rough...”

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Sam Fenn, senior producer.
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Lisa Hale, producer.
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Fenn putting an episode together. They come out once a month.

This podcast has been way more successful than I thought it would be. We’ve won awards and gotten to the top of iTunes Canada. We’ve made demands of government and they’ve heard — though not really moved on any of them. I’ve been told that B.C. cabinet ministers listen. And we’ve called Vancouver Police to account for their harassment of drug users during the overdose crisis. I’m proud of that interview. You won’t hear anything like it anywhere else. I’ve gotten loads of mail — including from other drug users, glad of the information, particularly in places where they feel isolated. But it’s exhausting and painful to dredge up some of your worst days. And it’s heartbreaking. I worry that not everyone who started this project together will be here at the end. We’ve already lost one.

With a rough mix in hand, I head to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. This is where many of Crackdown’s editorial board work on various activist projects. The editorial board are all drug users and have experience with colonization, jail and homelessness. They’ve also lobbied international dignitaries, cabinet members, mayors and prime ministers. Together, we figure out the kinds of stories we want to tell and work out thorny issues — like how to interview drug users without making them targets of police.

People are setting up the chairs. Samona is positioning one — she’s beaming today. She’s on the editorial board and is being followed around by her new puppy, a pug named Ollie. Al Fowler, also from the editorial board, has got the episode ready to play and is telling everyone to quiet down and find a seat. Since many people don’t have Internet access, we hold listening parties here. We play episodes and have discussions. Al has done battle with one of Vancouver’s most notorious slumlords, so this episode is close to his heart.

There are no chairs left, so I sit on the stairs, Ollie the pug farting happily at my feet. Pictures of VANDU members that have died cover the walls. Chereece Keewatin’s celebration of life poster is among them. Chereece was on our editorial board and a friend. She died in February and that was hard on us all — especially Laura Shaver, also on the editorial board, and Chereece’s best friend.

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Mullins and Ollie.
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I don’t see Laura anywhere. As the podcast plays, I quietly get up to go find her. She’s in the back, in tears and shaking. Her partner Martin has just overdosed. VANDU members jumped into action, giving him naloxone and oxygen. An ambulance took him away — breathing but still unable to speak or recognize Laura. I ask her if she wants me to come to the hospital. We leave in a taxi and I miss the rest of the listening party.

We eventually find out that Martin and several others overdosed on a mix of benzodiazepines and fentanyl. These ODs are worse. People are unconscious for hours. Martin is OK and I am relieved. But I wonder if this is the next terrible wave.

In October, we’ll have an episode on what we learned over months of investigative journalism. In 2014, the B.C. government forced 15,000 methadone patients onto a big pharma formulation that is less effective for many. People who were once stable are now dope sick every day and topping up from a contaminated drug supply. Thousands may have died in this way. So we started digging into government records.

We’ll also have my report from the crisis in Scotland, where benzos are already a big part of their shocking fatality stats. And with backlash against harm reduction gaining traction in Alberta, Ontario and maybe even Ottawa, you can be sure we’ll be covering the fight back.  [Tyee]

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