AIDS Moncton has quietly been supplying drug users in southeastern New Brunswick with reusable crack pipes for more than three years.
The safer smoking kit was added to the centre's distribution program for paraphernalia associated with life on the streets, such as needles and condoms, in 2012.
Roxanne Rupps, a community outreach co-ordinator with the Moncton organization, says program has grown since then.
"Half of our program right now is people coming in just for safe smoking pipes," said Rupps.
The kit comes in a little plastic bag and contains:
- 10 small metal screens, which is sufficient to make two filters
- A small glass tube
- A chop stick to pack the filter in
- A small piece of medical tubing for a mouth piece
Early on, Rupps was leery of the program because few studies had been done to prove that giving out pipes helps drug users shift their habits to safer methods and decreases the spread of disease.
But after more than three years, she says she's seen the the difference in the area.
"I'm talking about people who might have been using injection drugs for years … I'm talking 25 to 30 years of drug use," she said.
"When I saw them switch to pipes it was a real harm reduction that I saw great improvements in their overall health."
Terry Steeves is living proof of the difference the program can make.
At 54 years old, he was an injection drug user for nearly 20 years.
"It was a bad mistake. Wish I'd never done it because once you do it once you're always addicted, always," he says.
"I never went to sleep, I'd just pass out. I'd wake up with needles in my arm."
As his intravenous drug use increased, Steeves's veins started to collapse and his arms became infected, to the point where he faced the possibility of amputation.
"I almost lost them, it was this close," he says.
Steeves said having clean, safe pipes available helped him shift away from injecting drugs, giving his arms a chance to heal.
Scars remain that eat into Steeves's tattoos, but he can't help but show off his smooth blemish-free arms. He says he's been clean from all hard drugs for four months now.
"But I fight it everyday, I fight it every day," he says.
"It's a hard job man, a dirty job I guess."
Talking openly about his drug use is one way Steeves says he feels he can give back to the community.
"Maybe it'll stop somebody else from doing it right, that's the moral of the story," he says.
"If you hide away and don't say [anything], there could be somebody else in the same shape, a lot younger next time. And that's how it is too, they're getting younger and younger and younger."
'It's to give them the tools so they can use safer.' - Roxanne Rupps, AIDS Moncton
Rupps helped Steeves document his recovery, taking pictures of his arms as they healed.
Although she acknowledges some people might consider handing out crack pipes to be enabling drug users, she says it's all about harm reduction.
"It's for people who might not be ready to stop using, it's to give them the tools so they can use safer," she says.
"If you look back in the history books, there has been addiction as long as there have been people, and we have not yet found a way to solve addiction."
If Rupps has learned one thing in her seven years at AIDS Moncton, she said it's that life is hard, and if a safer smoking kit can make life easier or safer for people in need of a break, she's on board.