British Columbia

Crack smokers on South Coast risking infection

Researchers in B.C. say about two-thirds of drug users who smoke crack cocaine in Vancouver and Victoria are putting themselves at risk by sharing pipes.
Crack pipe sharing poses a serious hazard of spreading disease. (CBC)
Newly released data suggest about two-thirds of crack cocaine smokers in Vancouver and Victoria share crack pipes, a trend researchers say puts drug users at risk because of the lack of services available to help them.

A team of researchers at the University of Victoria have been tracking drug users in Vancouver and Victoria since 2008, and on Friday they released the results of their latest interviews, conducted late last year.

They interviewed a total of 273 crack users. In Victoria, about 70 per cent reported sharing crack pipes, while about 60 per cent in Vancouver said they shared.

Researcher Andrew Ivsins said while smoking crack isn't as dangerous as using needles, sharing pipes still carries risks.

"There's concern that disease can be transmitted through sharing crack pipes," said Ivsins, who works at the university's Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.

"The research on crack pipe sharing is limited, we just don't have that much research on it, so we don't know direct links [between sharing pipes and disease transmission]. But it has been hypothesized that hepatitis C, for example, can be transmitted through crack pipes."

The rate of needle sharing was low in comparison: about 20 per cent in Victoria, and four per cent in Vancouver.

Mouthpiece programs limited

Ivsins said pipe sharing is more prevalent because local health authorities don't distribute pipes in the same way they distribute clean needles. Ivsins said there are "limited" programs in both cities  handing out rubber mouthpieces and other parts, but not pipes.

"The main component that people use to smoke isn't part of what they're calling a crack kit, which would explain why so many people are sharing," he said.

Officials with Vancouver Coastal Health and the Vancouver Island Health Authority weren't available to comment on Friday.

Dr. Perry Kendall, the province's health officer, agreed programs distributing clean crack paraphernalia need to be expanded, and he said his office has encouraged municipalities and local health regions to do so.

Still, he suggested the rate of pipe sharing overstates the risk to crack users, since it doesn't account for those who share pipes but use their own mouthpieces.

"Clearly, we should be distributing more kits in more places," Kendall said in an interview.

"The issue isn't that there's a lack of glass pipes, it's that people share them, and if you use your own mouthpiece, then you're not sharing your spit and your viruses with anyone else."

B.C. has focused on harm-reduction programs for drug users, such as Vancouver's safe-injection site, which is currently the subject of a legal challenge at the Supreme Court of Canada. The federal government wants the power to shut it down.

Safe inhalation sites proposed

Insite is funded by the provincial government through Vancouver Coastal Health, and the group that operates Insite wants to open a safe-inhalation site for crack users.

While not specifically addressed in the research released Friday, both Ivsins and Kendall endorse the idea of a safe-inhalation site.

"I think it makes a lot of sense," said Kendall.

"It's a good way of reaching out to people and getting people in, tending to any other primary-care and health-care needs, and potentially referring them to addition services."

The needle sharing statistics show gaps as well.

Ivsins said while the rate in Vancouver has stayed relatively low since the research project began in 2008, needle sharing among drug users in Victoria has doubled.

Victoria's permanent needle exchange facility shut down in 2008, and it hasn't been replaced. In that time, the rate of needle sharing increased to 20 per cent, from about 10 per cent.

"It really highlights the shortage of services we have in Victoria," said Ivsins.

"Outreach workers are having trouble engaging with these populations that are hard to find in the first pace, never mind when they don't have somewhere to go to."