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Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction

by Travis Lupick

Vancouver’s Downtown eastside might qualify as ground zero for drug addiction in Canada – the locus for everything from heroin and crack cocaine to crystal meth, Oxycontin, and fentanyl. Travis Lupick, a journalist with experience writing about issues surrounding addiction and mental health, also lives in Vancouver’s troubled neighbourhood, and so has a vested interest in its welfare and the well-being of its denizens. Lupick’s new book tells the gripping story of how a small group representing the most marginalized and desperate Downtown Eastsiders banded together during the 1990s and 2000s to change hearts, minds, and laws by advocating for safe injection sites for intravenous drug users.

Lupick charts the experiences of the Portland Hotel Society, the Vancouver Network of Drug Users, and other activist groups as they are repeatedly ignored by politicians, harassed and beaten by police, and defeated in court. Setbacks and the glacial pace of progress notwithstanding, these various groups persevere and finally convince the machinery of the state to view drug addiction in Vancouver as a public health emergency rather than a criminal justice problem.

Today, a safe injection site offering addicts clean rigs, needles, and other paraphernalia seems like an obvious benefit for society – reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C and resulting in fewer overdose deaths. But for politicians, police, and NIMBYish taxpayers in 1990s Vancouver, it appeared counterintuitive at best and an abomination at worst.

Enter activists Ann Livingston, Bud Osborn, Liz Evans, Mark Townsend, Dean Wilson, and Dan Small. By fighting to establish Insite, North America’s first legal supervised injection program, what this group of rebels was actually doing was getting all levels of society – healthcare professionals, law enforcement, courts, average people – to acknowledge the humanity of deeply marginalized addicts and to demand they be respected as citizens with health-care problems, not garbage to be discarded.

Lupick’s book does not shy away from the negative: many people die, and PHS comes to a sordid end. But the lingering feeling the reader is left with is one of hope. Fighting for Space demonstrates that a rag-tag but passionate group, with the help of some well-placed political allies, media-savvy protest techniques, a researcher, and a lawyer or two, can change the world – or at least make it a little more bearable.