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Rights + Justice

Occupy Vancouver: Drug Den or Harm Reduction Haven?

One death, one near-fatal overdose. How deep goes drug culture at the tent village?

David P Ball 7 Nov 2011 |

David P. Ball is a freelance writer and photojournalist on Coast Salish territories.

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Occupy Vancouver camp medic Chris Shaw tried in vain to revive Ashlie Gough. Photo: David P. Ball.

At 2 a.m. a slight rain begins, and as the temperature drops at Occupy Vancouver I warm my hands over the tea-light candles of a makeshift memorial. Messages of condolence festoon the area beneath a cross dedicated to Ashlie Gough, 23, who died only metres from here on Saturday of a suspected overdose.

A little further into the tent village, two people sit drinking beer and giggling. I walk over to the two friends, sit on a crate with them, and observe as one pulls a miniscule plastic bag from his shirt pocket, full of a fine white powder, while the other proceeds to break a drinking glass into shards, evidently an accessory to help consume the unknown drug.

The young woman introduces herself and extends her hand. It's warm.

"It's nice to meet you," I say.

"You're meeting me under pretty weird circumstances," she says, giggling as she and her friend disappear into the tent with the broken glass and baggie.

"You know," she adds, "you really don't need to worry about me."

Gough was 'a really nice girl'

After Gough's death at Occupy Vancouver on Saturday -- suspected to be a drug overdose, although toxicology results have yet to be released -- and a near-fatal overdose only two days earlier, many are asking if the encampment has turned into some sort of drug den. Others, however, see it as a haven for those most affected by the very societal problems raised by the protest. Just what is the drug situation at the tent village?

"A lot of those people are street kids who are homeless or addicted," said Ian Beeching, a hospital emergency room nurse who volunteers as a medic at Occupy Vancouver. "It's turning into a site where people prefer to be over SROs (single resident occupancies) and shelters. Those aren't nice places."

"The media is spinning it now that the camp's just a bunch of drug addicts partying -- but these people are a legitimate part of the movement, and to dismiss them as just addicts or bad people further marginalizes them. It'll make them less likely to come for help next time there is an overdose."

Many recreational drug users, he said, feel that hospitals treat them as second-class citizens, and are often fearful of authorities because of negative experiences. Another way society marginalizes users, he explained, is by seeing them as nothing beyond their substance use.

Encountered while walking between the tents at Occupy, Gough's friends described her as a "bright, energetic, beautiful, kind, passionate, artistic youth." Another said, "She was a really nice girl -- she was friendly, she liked to dye her hair and care for others."

Protesters accuse mayor of playing politics with overdose

Beeching criticized Mayor Gregor Robertson's response to the death, in which he said the camp has become a hazard to participants' safety and must be shut down. With the coroner service recording 274 overdose deaths in Vancouver between 2005 and 2009, and camp medics claiming that number rose to 120 deaths last year, protest medics accuse Robertson of playing politics with Gough's death, asking why he doesn't respond similarly when overdoses occur in hotels, alleys or shelters.

When that question was put to the mayor by The Tyee, Robertson didn't directly answer, saying, "The first overdose was fortunately not a fatality. But the second overdose -- we have a young woman who has died, and all of those life safety risks continue throughout the rest of the site."

"That, all together, represents a real risk to the people on the site and to the city. The tent camp has to go."

Chris Shaw still feels shaken from Gough's death, which came only two days after fellow camp medics saved the life of a man who had a near-fatal overdose. Shaw, a University of British Columbia professor and camp medic -- who was trained in first aid in the Israeli army -- was the first-responder on the scene after the 23-year old Victoria woman was found unresponsive in her tent. He immediately began chest compressions, while another Occupy Vancouver medic did artificial respiration. After 10 minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), paramedics arrived on scene but it was too late, he said.

"I'm still upset about it," he said. "I used to be an army medic, and I kind of got my army mentality back on for this mess. It put me back in the zone for two days."

"I wish we'd gotten there earlier. We were there in 10 seconds -- literally 10 seconds."

'Have friends around when you're shooting'

It's difficult to gauge the level of drug use at Occupy Vancouver since most of it happens out of sight in tents. Marijuana smoke makes an appearance at many Vancouver demonstrations, of course.

Drugs and alcohol have become concerns at Occupy camps in both Victoria and Toronto. Last week, a homeless man in his early 30s was found dead in his tent at Occupy Oklahoma in the U.S., but authorities have not determined the cause of his death.

Volunteers acknowledge that some drug use occurs on the Occupy Vancouver site, pointing out that it also happens everywhere in the city and not by the majority of campers. But they say the solution is to make sure it happens safely. They believe the city should provide services if it is truly concerned.

"If they were serious, they would put out advisories and warnings," Beeching said. "They'd talk to participants and say 'Check the batches you're getting, be careful, have friends around when you're shooting.'"

"They should be supporting safe practice so that people don't die rather than marginalizing them."

This attitude follows the philosophy of harm reduction, an approach to recreational drug use designed to minimize its harmful consequences. In B.C., harm reduction is embodied in Vancouver's Insite safe injection site, which recently won a Supreme Court of Canada battle against the federal government to stay open.

'We're going to learn from this': Shaw

Several hours after Gough's death, Insite staff arrived to meet Occupy Vancouver medics and train them in drug overdose procedures. They also offered the camp supplies to deal with future incidents -- including the anti-opiate drug nalaxone, masks and inflatable bags to provide artificial respiration, and "jump kits" to quickly respond to overdoses.

"This is why we need Insite in society," said Lauren Gill, a drug and alcohol outreach counsellor who is part of Occupy Vancouver. Homeless people and counter-cultural youth too often bear the brunt of drug-use stereotypes, she said, when recreational drugs cut across class lines.

"Do you know how many rich people use cocaine?" Gill asked. "People who are housed have the luxury of doing it behind closed doors. In penthouse apartments people are doing lines of coke off marble tables."

She added that camp organizers are discussing the possibility of inviting Insite to set up a safe injection site on the Art Gallery lawn, but the organization would need a police exemption to carry out its work, Occupy volunteers reported. In any case, medics agree that safety at the camp needs improving -- but not at the cost of ostracizing the relatively small number of people using drugs.

"We are going to learn from this and do better," Shaw said. "But we did save someone last week and if he had been two blocks away he would have died."

"Gregor (Robertson) doesn't turn up at every drug death in the city. He knows completely well if it happened two blocks away he would not be there. He's playing political games with this death." Shaw was a vociferous critic of Robertson and Vancouver city hall as a high profile opponent of the 2010 Olympics and is running for city council for the De-Growth party.*

In the meantime, activists say they will continue supporting one another -- drug users or not -- and building community at Occupy Vancouver, which they argue is a protest against the very economic and political systems that create and exacerbate poverty, homelessness and drug addiction in the first place.

"In the face of this loss, we have a community staying together," said Danielle Lee Williams, an organizer at the encampment. "We need to address systemic change for all members of our community."

*Story updated at 4 p.m. on Nov. 7, 2011.  [Tyee]

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