Interview with Philip Owen about Vancouver's drug problems: Fixing the problem

Fixing the problem

Photo: Owen with VANDU president Dean Wilson

Coming to town with the documentary Fix: The Story of an Addicted City, Vancouver's ex-mayor Philip Owen speaks out in favour of a drug policy that works. An interview with a politician who lost his job because he supported safe injection sites.

When Nettie Wild set out to make her latest documentary it was going to be about the drug problem in her hometown of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. But the finished film, Fix: The Story of an Addicted City, does more than imitate life. It offers a riveting and coherent drama about an arena where things really do change – municipal politics. What’s more, it has affected the day-to-day reality of hundreds of people across the country.

Since Fix opened in Vancouver, it has taken over multiplexes in dozens of Canadian cities for extended runs – partly thanks to a strategy of post-screening public forums featuring characters from the film as well as local street nurses, users and others from the community.

Wild has done more than make an extraordinary film. She has idealistically thrown herself into a distribution strategy that has helped it transcend what art can usually accomplish in the real world.

"I think this film had legs. It was taken into the popular culture, out of church basements and addiction centres, and now we’re not preaching to the choir any longer. Besides," says Wild with a grin, "I’m allergic to empty seats. I realized as we were cutting the film that if we hurry up, were gonna get this thing finished and in cinemas in the time leading up to the election that had been created by the very chaos that we had documented. And in the end, the movie played a role in Vancouver’s so-called ‘Drug Election,’ in late 2002."

Fix goes beyond the usual safari-like disaster story to tell the intimate tale of several people whose struggle to reform drug policy has ripped apart the city of Vancouver. Among them, Ann Livingston, the non-using Christian founder of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU); her partner Dean Wilson, Canada’s most outspoken heroin addict and the president of VANDU; and Philip Owen, the Conservative ex-mayor of Vancouver who was ousted from his own party and out of office when he embraced the strategy of "Harm Reduction."

Hour caught up with Owen at his home in Vancouver, a week before his Montreal visit with Fix.

Hour What was it like seeing the struggle of your career up close and personal on the big screen?

Philip Owen It was pretty shocking for me at first – I broke out in a cold sweat. It was kind of heavy stuff: She had shot over 300 hours of tape and none of us had seen any of it until it was all put together.

Hour Can you pinpoint a moment in history that was an epiphany for you? When you realized the drug situation, which had already been present on your streets, really hit situation-critical?

Owen Yes. When crack showed up in 1995. Crack is not marijuana or heroin, it’s a really bad one. I have spent so much time downtown by myself, walking around talking to the people who are fired up on crack, and they’re really suffering.

Hour Is that where the Harm Reduction strategy can begin to take a less law-and-order approach toward people who are sick?

Owen We see it as the only approach that works. You can’t incarcerate your way out of this, and you can’t legalize your way out of it, and you can’t ignore it, so you manage it. What other choice do you have?

Hour And now the first safe injection site in North America is open in Vancouver, thanks in large part to your efforts and those of Dean Wilson and Ann Livingston of VANDU.

Owen It is open now and it is succeeding. [According to] the first study of the site in Vancouver, out a week ago yesterday, 481 people are using it. Now, when the police see people shooting up in the street, they can say, "You can’t do that here, go use the site." As far as the [opponents in the neighbourhood], I haven’t heard from them for two years. Nobody’s been complaining.

Hour Other than being a universal story, what can people in Montreal, who may be facing some of the same drug policy issues at the municipal level, learn from Fix?

Owen The politicians, the media and the public have to walk in lock step together. I think that the media does have a huge part to play in this. The Vancouver Sun got interested in this issue and started to dig deeper, and the public were very supportive of change. It was only my political allies who weren’t.

Hour The homeless and drug issues we deal with in Montreal, while major, are dwarfed by Vancouver’s numbers. Yet anyone who visits the Downtown Eastside notices a lot of French accents on the streets: Vancouver’s climate and drug culture are preferable to people from many places out east. Do you think the West Coast is getting the runoff of our problems, too?

Owen I know it, and it’s frustrating. All I keep hearing about is social housing. Vancouver has 22,000 units of non-market social housing and we’re always building more. There probably isn’t a city in America that has more social housing than we do. Meanwhile people from all over the country keep pouring in here. What are we supposed to do, house the whole country?

Hour Most of the towns that have shown Fix do not have as visible and prevalent a drug market as Vancouver does. Why do you think there has been so much interest?

Owen This is an issue for everybody, and people are getting the message that if they treat it blindly it’s going to come up and bite them. We’re getting these huge turnouts, because everybody knows somebody who has got [drug problems] in their family, or in their workplace, or somewhere in their lives. But there’s more – Ottawa is dealing with the drug issue now, showing some leadership, starting to look into safe injection sites. We’d better embrace it and support what Ottawa is doing.

Hour One thing Ottawa is doing is directly flouting the way the U.S. wants to run their drug war – Harm Reduction is the opposite of what they’d like to see from us.

Owen The U.S. says, "Stop the product coming in, and ‘treat’ those who are addicted. They haven’t succeeded in any of this, and meanwhile, we’ve got decay on our streets and they want to spend 45 billion dollars on their drug war. But if a million shipping containers come into Montreal every year and you can fit the amount of cocaine used by the whole city in a year into one, how are you going to police that?

Internationally, Canada is making our reputation and offering hope to the world because we stuck our neck out, went against [American drug czar] John Walters. And we’re right about this just like we were right about Afghanistan. It’s making our reputation.

Fix: The Story of an Addicted City screens at the Cinema du Parc, Nov. 7-13. Public forums after the screenings will feature many guests, including Philip Owen, Ann Livingston of VANDU, and local Harm Reduction activists. Check for details.

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