News / Vancouver

'Small gestures making a big difference’ against drug war

‘Fighting for Space’ offers rare look at the life-saving activism of drug users—and their 20-year battle against the war on drugs

Vancouver journalist Travis Lupick outside the Lost and Found Cafe in the Downtown Eastside — where most of his new book was written.

David P. Ball/Metro / Metro Order this photo

Vancouver journalist Travis Lupick outside the Lost and Found Cafe in the Downtown Eastside — where most of his new book was written.

As fentanyl killed thousands this past three years, there’s been little good news for those who lost multiple loved ones to the epidemic.

Proven steps to prevent more deaths — such as drug consumption sites, prescription heroin, and treating addiction as a health, not criminal, issue — have been lamented as “too little, too late” by those affected, or “too controversial” by those in power.

Now, a newly released book by local journalist Travis Lupick hopes to remind Canadians that there are solutions but for 20 years they’ve actually come from drug users themselves, not government.

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Largely as a result of their activism, many health authorities now prioritize minimizing the dangers of illegal drug use — instead of focusing on ending drug use itself — the practice of “harm reduction.”

“I’m not saying rehab or treatment or those other things are any less important,” Lupick said. “They inevitably appear in my book because they occur in people’s lives alongside harm reduction.

“The whole idea of harm reduction is to keep people alive long enough that they can get into rehab or treatment if they want. A lot of characters in the book do go through treatment, get sober, rebuild their lives, and do really incredible things with them.”

But just like the 1990s overdose crisis — which at the time was shockingly fatal, but pales compared to opioids — today’s epidemic has its roots in political decisions.

The author’s first book — Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction — is being launched at a public event in Vancouver on Nov. 16.

It involved at least 250 interviews with perhaps 200 people, “an amazing cast of characters,” he said.

Those include many of the outspoken addicts and advocates behind the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Insite’s founders Portland Hotel Society — who, though forced to resign after B.C. released a scathing financial audit, have since applied themselves to the raging U.S. opioid crisis.

“It is sort of a chronological, anecdotal narrative that recounts the lives of a few key people in what is actually a really small area,” he explained. “The entire book takes place in just 10 square blocks and follows just a few key characters.

“The characters I focused on are just fascinating people … It’s not single acts I was inspired by, but how consistently they were making small gestures making a big difference in people’s lives.”

And while Lupick has won awards for his years of dogged reporting on the origins of and solutions to today’s drug epidemic for the Georgia Straight and Al-Jazeera News, the dedication page of Fighting for Space makes clear Lupick sees no room any more for neutrality on a life-or-death issue.

“Our governments and police have waged a war on people who use drugs,” he writes. “This book is for their victims.”

But if there’s any silver lining in the current tragedy, Lupick suggests, it’s that Vancouver “has been through this before” — and could once again be a beacon across North America. He cited some politicians of the late 1990s who, after activists got organized, “truly listened to drug users in crafting drug policies … We should be applying those lessons today more than we are.”

Lupick’s public book launch will be 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16 at Beaumont Studios (316 5th Ave., Vancouver).

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