3 min

Crack pipes are a queer issue

Health-based approach was developed by gays for HIV

Queer people get sidelined a lot — and we’ve become accustomed to that. But there is a pretty big difference between getting used to something and putting up with it. What we’ve accomplished — from the original march on Parliament Hill in 1971 with the “We Demand” document to the passage of same sex marriage in 2005 &mdash speaks directly to that. We don’t put up with the homophobic, false logic that queers should suffer unfair treatment in the eyes of the law or within our communities. So why would we put up with the same false logic with services that affect us in our own community?

Ottawa’s crack pipe program has been in operation since 2005 and has continually been under fire from local politicians and the police services — and queer people have a stake in this. Our families still throw us onto the street, we still suffer higher rates poverty in our lives and we are still more likely to suffer hate-related violence. And &mdash guess what — we smoke crack, too. Some studies show that queer youth are eight times more likely to use crack than non-queer-identified youth, which means we have a burgeoning demographic of queer adult crack users. That poses some pretty dangerous problems for us when our politicians are constantly on the edge of deciding to yank away a program that has proven results.

Scrapping a program that has been proven to improve our health — like needle exchanges and the crack pipe program — is literally playing with people’s lives.

Programs that reduce the harm involved with using drugs work. One study found that the percentage of people in Ottawa sharing crack pipes every time they used fell from 37 percent to 13 percent only a year into the program. There is “real evidence of behaviour change,” according to Dr Lynne Leonard’s HIV Prevention Research Team at the University Of Ottawa.

One of the main risks involved in smoking crack involves sharing pipes, which are often made out of items like aluminum cans. The cans heat up quickly and tend to burn users’ lips when smoking. Burned lips means open sores which, in the end, means an increased chance of transmitting both Hepatitis C and HIV.

Having a crack pipe program means that those of us who are offering the service get to have conversations with the people picking up items that allow them to inhale more safely. In fact, according to the same University Of Ottawa study, there have been about 4400 conversations between crack users and community workers. That’s pretty significant considering that historically, crack users have been found to have unequal access to social services.

In the gay community, we have learned to become meaningful advocates for ourselves. You have to when you’re considered to be illegal or when you’re infected with a virus that was initially classified as a “gay disease.” We have a great history of thinking outside the box, being tolerant and mobilizing to demand what we deserve. We have a right to health and we all deserve to be treated with respect. What’s criminal is denying someone’s right to access a service that has been proven to reduce harm and support a healthy life just because that person uses drugs.

The police already get plenty of money for their role in fighting drug addiction. According to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, 73 percent of the funding for the illicit drug portion of Canada’s drug strategy is spent on enforcement measures. Everything else — research devoted to the use of drugs, treatment programs and initiatives that promote the health of users themselves — share a scant 26 percent of those funds. A 2005 report by the Health Officers Council of British Columbia demonstrates that two of the main barriers to implementing health-focussed initiatives like Ottawa’s crack pipe program, are the tendency for protection services to guard their own bank accounts, as well as lack of political will by governments to tackle controversial issues. We know this program works, we know it improves the health of people in our community and we know it costs the city very little money.

The queer community has a strong history of finding creative solutions and making change through activism, and it is time for us to come together again on this issue and continue our story of demanding what we deserve. Speak to City Council during the public session Feb 19 to 23 and sign up for a five-minute minute time slot. Write letters to council and the media. Join us in a rally. For more information, and if you’re interested in getting clean works, come to the office at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, 251 Bank Street, Suite 700 or call 613-238-5014.