On Drugs

City on drugs: the dark pull of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

If you want to learn about drug addiction, Vancouver is a good place to start. The city has struggled with opioid abuse nearly as long as it's existed. In the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, thousands of people live with addiction, along with a painful combination of other issues.

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has long had a magnetic pull for troubled souls

Vancouver has long had a magnetic pull for troubled souls around the country - a kind of narcotic migration drawing people in. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Known for rows of glass condo towers framed by the glittering waters of Burrard Inlet, snowcapped mountains, and crisp pacific air, Vancouver is often deemed one of the most livable places on earth. But the city has a dark side, percolating just out of the view of most visitors and residents.

Vancouver has long had a magnetic pull for troubled souls from across the country — a kind of narcotic migration fuelled by climate, history, and geography.

It all comes to a head at the corner East Hastings and Main Street, where a chaotic scene plays out day after day. People in the throes of addiction loiter and sleep on the sidewalk, or mill around in a search for their next fix.

Patrick, who calls himself "the Raven," knows this side of the city all too well.

Vancouver is known for glittering skylines and mountain air. But residents of the city's Downtown Eastside face a very different reality. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He arrived from Alberta with his mother when he was 11, as they tried to track down his runaway sister.

"The first day we came here, we came down to Hastings Street. The first day I came here I seen a guy get killed, that used to be the Broadway Hotel right across the street here. I seen him get kicked to death — the first day I was here. And that's my vision of Vancouver," he said.

It's a beautiful, warm feeling, it's like being hugged by God.- Patrick, 'the Raven'

"This is the community that I end up in. I slip, I fall, and this is where I come," said Patrick.

"The reason I end up coming here is there's a lot of brown faces, I'm more accepted here down on skid row than I am anywhere else in our society." 

According to Patrick, he said he was the only Indigenous student at his East Vancouver high school and quickly began feeling isolated.

He eventually turned to heroin.

"It's wonderful, it's great, I love it. It's a beautiful, warm feeling, it's like being hugged by God [...] I didn't feel all the troubles that I was carrying. And next thing you know I'm addicted."

A used injection kit at the Hastings Street Market drug injection site. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Prescription heroin program

Laurie doesn't consider herself a typical drug user.

In the throes of a deep depression as she dealt with the end of her marriage and separation from her children, she tried heroin for the first time when she was 37.

"The guilt of leaving my children and my family, that's really what brought me down. [Heroin] made me feel like nothing could touch me and I was okay. I didn't have that deep pain anymore," she said.

Every day, Laurie makes the trek from the suburb of New Westminster to Crosstown Clinic on Hastings Street — the only clinic in North America to offer medical grade heroin to people living with addiction.

The Rat Park experiments

Bruce Alexander, a retired psychology professor from Simon Fraser University, said misconceptions around addiction have deep roots.

"In the 1970s everybody believed that if you just took a little bit of heroin two or three times, you would become addicted," said Alexander. "It isn't true."

According to Alexander, much of our understanding of addiction stems from a well-known experiment, in which rats were placed in a Skinner box — like a bread box, but smaller — with nothing but a lever. When they hit the lever, they'd be injected with heroin, right into their jugular vein. In the experiment, the rats quickly became addicted.

Alexander and his team decided to recreate the experiment — but in their version, they put the rats in a more natural environment, something like a garage floor. They found the rats living in the "rat park" used far fewer drugs than those contained in small boxes.

"If you put anybody in solitary confinement — person or rat — and give them nothing whatsoever to do, except take a drug which makes them feel a little bit better, that's probably the only thing they'll do," said Alexander.

The problem is they haven't got anything to turn to. And they've got to have something to turn to."- Bruce Alexander

Alexander now studies Indigenous communities, and says his research has found that loss of culture and high rates of addiction go hand in hand. 

"When culture is destroyed, addiction, and a host of other problems that go along with it become prevalent in a way that's unsustainable, and it becomes scary," he said.

"The problem is not the drug, they could stop using the drug, But the problem is they haven't got anything to turn to. And they've got to have something to turn to." 

"It's one or the other, love in your life, or drugs in your life. You can't mix them up, you can't have them both at the same time," says Patrick Duncan. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Another drug user found at the Hastings Street Market injection site, Patrick Duncan, put the findings of Alexander's research into one succinct thought, based solely on his own experience.

"It's one or the other: Love in your life, or drugs in your life. You can't mix them up, you can't have them both at the same time. In the end it's one or the other, and for me, if I had love, I'd take it all day, but I haven't had that yet," he said, before wandering over to a chair, filling his little glass pipe with crack cocaine and inhaling the smoke.