Podcast – Street Surveillance and the War on Drugs

Rights Back At You | Episode 2


What does the future of harm reduction look like for communities that are already overpoliced and surveilled? In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, we connect with harm reduction activist Hugh Lampkin who saves lives with naloxone and community building. We investigate how drug criminalization impacts Black people in Canada, and visit the MySafe machine, a palm-scanning smart dispensing machine for drugs.

They’re not cops anymore. They’re soldiers. And we are the enemy.

– Hugh Lampkin


The struggle for human rights shapes news around the globe. Join Amnesty International, one of Canada’s largest human rights organizations, and untangle the chaos of your newsfeed. Want to hear compelling stories from people who fight back? Learn more about the systems that define our world? Or hang out with people who believe a better world is possible for everyone? Rights Back at You features stories from frontline activists that cut right to the heart of human rights—being human.

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Ep.2-Street Surveillance and The War on Drugs

Daniella: [00:00:01.32] A quick content note about this episode. The story mentions suicide, death and injection drug use.

Meenakshi: [00:00:09.17] Everywhere you go, there is a policing of you, whether it’s security at shoppers, whether it’s by transit police, whether it’s VPD, whether it’s someone from the BIA who says, You took a sh*t on my stoop and I’m going to call the cops on you. But there’s actually no bathroom for blocks like. Things are bad. I think that’s why things seem bad. There’s an unpredictable, contaminated substance supply that you are basically forced to take your life into your own hands if you use illicit substances.

Daniella: [00:00:47.57] Welcome to Rights Back at You, a human rights podcast from Amnesty International Canada. I’m Daniella Barreto. Today we’re getting into how anti-Black racism fuels the drug war, the criminalization of poverty, and how some people are fighting back to keep their communities alive. There are many threads to this episode. Policing the war on drugs. Surveillance of people who use substances. Homelessness and intergenerational trauma. These threads are all tightly bound to each other, despite the magnitude of each one. British Columbia is known for a few things. Mountains. The ocean. Outrageous housing costs. But also B.C. is home to a virtually unchecked drug poisoning crisis. Six people die every single day from a poisoned drug supply. In fact, more than 1000 people died in the first half of 2022.

Hugh: [00:01:52.99] It’s just crazy down here. It’s crazy. You know, so many people have passed away down here. You can see the numbers have gone down. You don’t see the people you do. But yet the police presence has gone up.

Daniella: [00:02:04.82] This is Hugh Lampkin. He’s a long time Downtown Eastside resident and harm reduction activist. There aren’t a lot of Black people in Vancouver, compared to other large Canadian cities, but there are many Black people doing crucial community work, especially in the Downtown Eastside. Hugh has been here for decades.

Hugh: [00:02:24.32] Harm reduction, in a nutshell, is saving lives.

Daniella: [00:02:29.36] Harm reduction is a general idea that there’s risk involved in everything and we can do things to lower that risk. Think seat belts in case of a car accident or new needles instead of sharing them to prevent HIV transmission. The basic ideas of harm reduction have stayed the same since the days when HIV started sweeping through the community. When Hugh was handing out fresh needles in the mid-2000s, people would tell him they just wanted a few.

Hugh: [00:02:54.05] How many syringes you want? Five. Five? Is that all? You want 10 or 20. Really? And it’s like, Yeah. What do you want? You want to box? I’ve given people so many boxes of 100. I go, Here, take it. You know, when you want to stop something, you don’t take things away. You bring more of it on, right?

Daniella: [00:03:14.54] I take the bus from the stretch of East Hastings I live on to meet with Hugh at VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. I want to learn more about harm reduction directly from him. It’s just rained, so the sidewalks are wet and I have to hop over a puddle or two. I walk by Oppenheimer Park, which has the most beautiful cherry blossom trees in the spring. A few single room occupancy or SRO buildings and a handful of police SUVs with officers standing around on the block. I sit with Hugh in the VANDU kitchen while he explains how he became known as the guy who saves lives. He wasn’t always going to be this guy. In fact, Hugh tried to take his own life years ago.

Hugh: [00:04:02.83] I came here to Vancouver back in 2005. When I came out here things were really bad for me and I decided to have my last meal and $250 bottle of scotch and a couple hundred dollar bottle of wine and do a couple packages of heroin and go to sleep. And it didn’t work. I don’t know why, but I guess something greater is in store for me because I woke up in the morning to birds chirping like crazy chirping, and it was getting to me and I screamed at them to shut up and they just stopped. And I was looking at them on my balcony and there was a whole bunch of them on the tree, like there’s a pine tree in the front. And it sort of gives me a little bit of privacy. And I was watching them and it must have been about 15 birds, little starlings, I guess they were. It was like they were all looking at me saying, “you’re an idiot. You’re an idiot”. And after a couple of minutes, they all flew off, just all flew away without saying anything. It was just the damndest, weirdest thing. I figured, okay, well, you know, that didn’t work, and it should have worked so maybe I just acted a bit hastily here and give things a chance because I was really down, you know, I had nobody to talk to, nobody I can trust. And, you know, from a lot of the trauma and things that happened to me in childhood and growing up and stuff like that, it makes it really difficult for me to get close to people and to trust people because the people that were supposed to look after me and make sure I was safe, they weren’t there. So about two days later I was walking along Hastings and they came along a bunch of people coming out of a building, and it looked like something might’ve been going on, they looked like me.

Daniella: [00:05:46.03] So he went into the building and walked up to the receptionist.

Hugh: [00:05:49.45] And I asked her, like, “What’s going on? What is this place?” She says, “It’s VANDU.” And she told me that they were the ones that came up with insight and did all the fighting. And other people took the credit and said, “Oh, really? You guys did that?” “Yeah, you know, that’s pretty cool”. It’s like the only place in the Western hemisphere. Well, at least here in North America.

Daniella: [00:06:09.73] Insite is a legendary supervised injection site that opened in 2003, just a few blocks away from VANDU. There are nurses and peer workers present to make sure people are using in the safest way possible. There’s a treatment and recovery center right upstairs if people decide they want to go inside, had to receive an exemption to operate. Otherwise, a site like this was illegal. At the time, it was the only supervised injection site in North America. According to Vancouver Coastal Health, Insite has received 3.4 million visits to inject drugs since it opened. And to this day, there has never been an overdose death there. Hugh got increasingly involved with running VANDU. He became almost synonymous with the place. Many years ago, back when he lived in Ontario, he’d help out his community in similar ways too.

Hugh: [00:07:05.71] Yeah, in Toronto I used to drive around in the wintertime with Anishinaabe Health and look for street people and make sure that they were alive and they hadn’t frozen to death or died of exposure and give them coffee and blankets and talking to them and take them someplace if they needed to go. So I’ve always had that sort of side with me because I’m the little guy. So you always have to look after each other. And growing up being Black, we’ve always had to do something to the community, give back to the community, or watch out for the community. So I grew up with that mindset.

Daniella: [00:07:37.42] About a decade ago, Hugh tells me, he and a few other VANDU folks went to a harm reduction conference and they came back home with something that would change the game entirely– a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose.

Hugh: [00:07:54.60] While we were there, we were talking to some street nurses. They were talking to us about naloxone. And it was like, “Really?” Our ears just went, like, right up.

Daniella: [00:08:05.06] At the time, Naloxone wasn’t easy to get in Vancouver.

Hugh: [00:08:09.68] You had to have a doctor. It was like a script. You had to have a script on it. And the only people who had it were hospitals, EMT, Maybe in a doctor’s office. But that was it. It wasn’t available anywhere else. We took one of the little courses they had there to administer naloxone, and we were talking about them and we’re saying, “Listen, we really need this in Vancouver” because it was horrible. Like a lot of people would O.D. And so when we were there, we were able to get the training. Basically, they kicked us off and kicked off the country on that. And I don’t think anybody’s ever given them any accolades. And I’d like to because they really motivated us to get going on that. There’s one particular nurse she knew what we were going on about because she came from Vancouver. She did her intern here or something. So she knew about the eastside and there was a couple of ten milliliter balls in the table and wink, wink, nudge, nudge, “I’m going to the washroom, so I’ll talk to you guys in a bit”. So we got the idea and we took the bottles and we brought them back because we could use them. She obviously knew that we needed them and she couldn’t give them to us. We couldn’t ask for them, you know, all that kind of thing. If we get caught stealing them, so be it. We’ll take that chance. And she came back and didn’t say anything about it. And we didn’t say anything about it. Plausible deniability. Let’s keep it there. And health care people like that are great because they are the ones that do the most to help save people’s lives. Because without that, we wouldn’t have had that to start getting naloxone down here.

Daniella: [00:09:45.98] But how did we get to a place where a group of harm reduction workers would feel the need to smuggle naloxone from a health conference? According to Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives Drug Criminalization, began in the 1980s as a tool of repression. It created a vilifying link between drugs, danger and Black communities, fanning the flames of moral panic and old stereotypes of criminality and violence even though drug use and sale is more common in white communities, according to numerous Canadian studies. The Toronto Star did a study based on documents they requested from the Toronto Police Service between 2003 and 2013. While drug use remained consistent between Black and white populations, more than a third of people arrested for cannabis use were Black. Black people are just 8% of Toronto’s population. This astronomical arrest rate was due to carding– the practice of stopping people without probable cause because of all the racist tropes that exist about Black people and drugs, police pay more attention to Black people’s movements in public space and stop them for reasons they might not stop other people. To add insult to injury, the federal government did not expunge the criminal records of people incarcerated or arrested for cannabis crimes after cannabis was legalized in Canada.

Daniella: [00:11:12.57] Even more mind-boggling? Along with the many other high ranking politicians and police officers to change their tune, a former Toronto police chief who was a major proponent of carding and the war on drugs, went on to open a cannabis business after legalization in partnership with a former RCMP leader. So if it’s not about the danger of actual drugs, then there must be something else at play. A major 2016 study from public health giants The Lancet and Johns Hopkins University showed unequivocally that it is drug prohibition and not drugs themselves that has a huge negative impact on public health and human rights. Prohibition pushes people away from health care and heightens overdose risk because of stigma and discrimination. It’s contributed to multiple epidemics like HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis that also disproportionately impact Black people. It also helps maintain the status quo. Black activists are often seen as criminal threats to national security under this same framework. They’re picked on and monitored like we saw with Derek in the last episode. It’s part of why one in every 15 young Black men in Ontario has had jail time.

Hugh: [00:12:29.28] If you’re a young Black male and you’re doing something, chances are by the time you’re 15, you’ve already been pulled over. had your name ran, had some kind of dealing with the cops and you could be low class, middle class or high class. You are going to have contact with the police. Guaranteed. Don’t tell me because drugs are illegal and this and that and the other. That’s a cop out. You made it illegal to use that excuse on us and keep people in fear. It’s about fear. They’re not cops anymore. They’re soldiers. And we are the enemy.

Daniella: [00:13:04.38] Racist policing practices have become institutionalized in many ways. For example, before cannabis was legalized in 2018, many Canadian police officers were sent down to US prisons to receive training on how to recognize when someone is high. But the majority of the prison populations they visited were Black and brown. What does this mean when imported back to Canada that some people, often Black people, are seen as more suspect than others?

Vince: [00:13:35.40] We have to think of police power not just as the spectacular violence that we see with police brutality and beatings and killings on the street, but also its larger carceral logic, police logic. My name is Vince Tao and I’m a community organizer here at VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

Daniella: [00:13:51.99] Because of the war on drugs and associated war on poverty, police are a constant presence in the Downtown Eastside. City workers and police would patrol East Hastings, taking down tents and seizing people’s possessions in an effort to “clean up” the sidewalks and get rid of garbage.

Vince: [00:14:12.57] One of the campaigns that we’re currently engaged in is around street sweeps. So this is a daily practice in the Downtown Eastside, all along Hastings Street. And so for some context, this is kind of the Skid Row of Vancouver, Canada’s poorest neighborhood.

Daniella: [00:14:26.82] In June 20, 22 city workers and the Vpd paused street sweeps, agreeing to actually work with the community. But they started back up again after an order from the fire chief. Two months later, in August. Many fatal fires on East Hastings have happened inside SROs and activists suggests the fire order is disingenuous. A way to continue street sweeps under another name. VANDU and other groups like Pivot Legal Society have extensively documented people’s experiences with street sweeps, what they’ve lost, and campaigned against how violent they are, especially when people don’t have anywhere else to go. This decampment practiced by the city isn’t unique to Vancouver either. Housing is a human right, and if people are living in tents because there’s no safe, affordable, clean or dignified housing available, displacing them to nowhere is pretty plainly a human rights issue. Vince tells me that a longtime VANDU member named Myles Harp said:

Vince: [00:15:28.96] Beyond the stuff that they take from people, their possessions, their livelihood. They take away people’s hope. Imagine every morning you’re trying to survive. You’re trying to get your life together. And then the first thing that you see in the morning, 8:45 a.m. is the face of a policeman telling you to scram. And then if you don’t scram fast enough, they take everything you have and you have to start from zero. You know, we’ve heard some really tough stories. It’s not just the survival stuff. It’s people’s baby photos. We’ve heard multiple instances of people’s ashes being thrown out, personal possessions that they’ll never get back. The city and the police, they inevitably will say, we do this. This is a necessary service to clean up the sidewalks. So we asked the folks getting swept. “Are the sidewalks clean?” And the resounding answer was no. The logic here wasn’t cleaning up the sidewalks. It’s beating people up, harassing them. It’s disrupting their lives, creating street disorder. What we say here is that you don’t need six guys with guns, six other guys with pitchforks in order to get the garbage off the streets. You give us the shovels, we’ll clean it up ourselves. And that’s why when we talk about detasking and defunding the police, we need to come up with an alternative. And that’s exactly what we’re fighting for.

Daniella: [00:16:55.82] VANDU and other organizations in the area started a block stewardship program called Our Streets, where community leaders could make sure safety issues were taken care of without involving the police. They help people with day to day issues, handing out supplies like reusable water bottles and sunscreen during Vancouver’s ever-increasing heat waves. And if anyone overdoses, they have naloxone on hand. Hugh remembers the first time he ever had to use the naloxone they took from the conference nurse. He was in VANDU late one evening.

Hugh: [00:17:32.08] I had closed down and everybody had went home and I was doing some paperwork in the office. And somebody came in and were banging on the door and going, “Come on, man, you got to help me somebody’s OD-ing”. So I went down there and as I got there, trying to put Buddy in his side and see, you know, do a quick assessment of the situation. And it dawned on me. We’ve got Naloxone! So I said, “Keep him on the side. Keep his head there”. I ran back to VANDU, grabbed the bottle, and I grabbed a handful of syringes and I ran out there.

Daniella: [00:18:01.49] To understand the next part, you need to know a little about the science behind what Naloxone actually does. We all have receptors in our brains that different molecules can attach to.

Hugh: [00:18:12.80] So when you take an opiate or any kind of drugs, it goes to the pleasure center receptors and binds to them.

Daniella: [00:18:19.70] When these receptors get saturated with opioids, it can trigger common signs of an overdose, very small pupils, an inability to wake up, weak breathing or worse, no breathing at all.

Hugh: [00:18:35.30] What naloxone does is when you administer it to a person, it goes to these receptors. Its binding is stronger than the heroin or the opiate, and it basically kicks it off of that receptor and stays on that receptor. But it only stays for 90 minutes. It’ll start to wear off sometimes faster, depending on the dose people shouldn’t use after that.

Daniella: [00:18:57.41] Sometimes a person will need multiple doses. Because naloxone wears off, sometimes people can go back into an overdose if there’re still opioids in their system.

Hugh: [00:19:10.46] So we tell people, you know, don’t be alone for a few hours and don’t do any more dope.

Daniella: [00:19:15.32] So Hugh has his first ever dose of naloxone ready to go.

Hugh: [00:19:20.84] Pulled it out and I filled it up. So I gave him about one CC, maybe 90 units, and I put it in him. His breathing was kind of restricted. I gave him one more shot and he went (inhales) really hard and he shot up. Just sat up there and he looked around. What the hell happened? I went “Holy f****, this is great”.

Daniella: [00:19:42.02] He explained that in the past, reviving a person who’d overdose on heroin would require three people.

Hugh: [00:19:49.28] Two people helped that person while one person get rid of all the evidence. People need CPR. We always got ourselves to do CPR. So it was like blow and pump. Blow and pump until the ambulance got there.

Daniella: [00:20:02.48] Now they had another tool to help.

Hugh: [00:20:05.78] If you get there within a good time, that person after two shots or sometimes one shot will be sitting up within a minute.

Daniella: [00:20:13.19] That was the first time. I asked how many times he’s had to use it since.

Hugh: [00:20:17.93] In the triple digits.

Daniella: [00:20:19.25] And fentanyl is harder for naloxone to deal with than drugs like heroin.

Hugh: [00:20:23.93] This is so powerful, it doesn’t act same way as heroin does. So anywhere from 1 to 3 shots to revive a person, The most I’ve seen a person given that I had worked on was 14 shots.

Daniella: [00:20:38.18] As miraculous as bringing someone back to life is, reversing an overdose is only an immediate solution. Overdoses can happen to one person many times, and sometimes they won’t survive. If we want to keep people alive, activists say there’s an even simpler answer. Stop the drug poisonings to begin with.

I’m nearby VANDU at the Overdose Prevention Society. OPS is a dark green building on East Hastings Street, covered in street art, supporting Land Back and drawing attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. It’s a really busy space, so you’ll hear some of its liveliness in the background. I’m here to have a look at a machine that’s making waves in the harm reduction world. It’s called MySafe.

Mark: [00:21:30.44] You know, the safe supply to me just makes so much sense. My name is Mark Tyndall. I’m a physician and infectious disease doctor who has worked in the Downtown Eastside since 1999 and been involved in just a lot of harm reduction work.

Daniella: [00:21:47.30] Mark’s leading the MySafe project, which Hugh has been a part of. In fact, he was one of the first people to ever use it.

Hugh: [00:21:54.98] I’ve known him for years and he had talked to me about this years ago, about having a vending machine where people could get their medication from. When I first heard of it, it was like, “A vending machine?! Oh, man, are you kidding me? That thing would not last a night”.

Daniella: [00:22:11.63] Over the years, they talked about it, and finally it came through.

Hugh: [00:22:15.80] There’s no way anybody’s taken off of that vending machine in the night, it’s huge. It’s bolted down. It’s got weights inside of it.

Daniella: [00:22:22.31] Basically, it’s a machine that reads palms. Not in the mystical sense, but the biometric sense. Hugh was one of the first users. It contains little pill packets of hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid or as a handwritten sign next to it, warned, “Do not lean on the dilly machine”.

Mark: [00:22:43.43] I kind of consider the Coors Lite of opioids. I mean, it’s not strong enough for a lot of people, but it takes the edge off things. And the way the machine works is it’s biometric. It reads the vein pattern on your palm. Everybody’s different and it’s only useful for the machine. So it just connects your lane of medication to your palm. You simply just touch the screen. Welcome to MySafe and it brings you to this blue light on the scanner and you just stick your palm up as the diagram shows. And then they hit another button “press to continue”, and then you hear a little buzzing noise, and then it takes about ten or 15 seconds, and then you hear a little plunk in the cupboard here and you open up the little door and your medications in bottom there and you pick them up and leave. So altogether, the process takes under a minute and you’re off.

Daniella: [00:23:36.32] MySafe uses an infrared sensor to detect a hand in front of it. While it doesn’t currently have predictive uses. Mark says they gather information about every person in the beginning.

Mark: [00:23:47.06] We ask them where they live, their name, if they are identify with First Nations. So there’s some basic demographic information that we ask that’s put on a secure server somewhere. I don’t think it can fall in the wrong hands and we’re not tracking people. It’s very useful knowing if people came to the machine in this environment where people are often just found down or dead after two or three days. So we do have a mechanism where we if somebody hasn’t picked up for two days, at least, we try and find out where they are or necessarily track them down. After a week, though, if certainly if it’s in a housing environment and then they’re in room 207, we make sure that the management knows that we haven’t seen that person for a week, you know? So that kind of information can actually be quite helpful for people’s security and safety. I don’t really see any unintended consequences.

Daniella: [00:24:44.21] The way the machine works also raises other questions. When I was there with Mark, a man with a darker skin tone was having trouble being recognized by the machine. He tried a few times to put his hand in front of it and the light kept turning red. There may have been a glitch, or maybe he wasn’t in the system, but it did make me remember something Hugh mentioned a few days earlier. When Hugh initially used MySafe. He also told me it had difficulty reading his hand.

Hugh: [00:25:10.82] It’s the first machine, so the bugs were still there. But I found the only bug when it was the distancing for it to read.

Daniella: [00:25:18.56] The scanning part of the machine uses an infrared laser. Infrared works well for people with lighter skin, so people who have less melanin. Melanin is just a pigment found in the skin. People with darker skin have more melanin, and people with albinism have very little or none. Just like with facial recognition, some familiar questions come up. Who is the technology tested on and how well does it work for people with darker skin?

A few years ago there was a video that traveled around the Internet about a soap dispenser in a bathroom. A Black man tries in vain to get a soap dispenser to work. He gets his white friend to do it, and it works instantly. Repeatedly, MySafe uses similar technology in a fancier machine. Infrared just doesn’t work as well on darker skin because darker skin absorbs more light. We may appear invisible to the device. In her book, “Race After Technology” Ruha Benjamin asks fundamental questions about the soap dispenser scenario that could also apply to MySafe. Why was this particular sensor mechanism chosen? Are there other options that recognize a broader spectrum of skin tones? And how is this potential problem overlooked during development and testing?

Black people are used to feeling invisible. At the same time very visible. That double-edged sword often means we’re left out of programs or interventions because there aren’t enough of us in British Columbia.

Daniella: [00:26:46.32] This kind of baked in racism, the unintentional systemic kind that excludes people, can make it harder to access lifesaving services like the kind MySafe is trying to provide. Despite Mark’s insistence that there aren’t any unintended consequences of MySafe, that’s hard to say for certain. Medical data collection on marginalized groups, even if it’s well intentioned, often makes people bristle. And for good reason. Black people’s bodies, as well as those of Indigenous people and people of color, have been used as test sites throughout history.
Here are just a few of the examples. If you want to read more, read “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington. From about 1930 to 1970, in the infamous Tuskegee study, Black men were deliberately denied syphilis treatment because researchers wanted to see the long term effects of the untreated infection. In the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks was a black woman whose cervical cells were harvested without her permission and are now the most popular cell line used in microbiology labs around the world. They even contributed to creating the polio vaccine. Or, even further back in the mid 1800s. Gynecology relied on unanesthetized experimentation on enslaved black women. In the Downtown Eastside, communities have reported that researchers vacuum up data from the neighborhood in exchange for fancy publications and awards.

Daniella: [00:28:13.13] The communities sometimes don’t see much in return. Residents even created a manifesto for research in the Downtown Eastside because of how often this data extraction happens. They say sometimes research undermines community initiatives, doesn’t give people a chance to see the findings and can even delay urgent action by studying the issue instead. Despite questions around data tracking and access, MySafe is still an important technological addition to the range of harm reduction interventions that exist to help stem the ever rising tide of overdose deaths in the city. Mark says most physicians and most people who would need to prescribe safe supply are quite uncomfortable with it. They still think it’s enabling. He says they would like to blanket people and comprehensive care and immediately deal with any other health issues clients may be experiencing. But according to Mark, a lot of people just want to be left alone at first. And the most helpful thing you can do is make sure people don’t die from poisoned drugs. People aren’t dying from overdoses because they’ve taken too much. People are dying because the supply isn’t regulated and there’s no way of knowing what’s in the dose.

Mark: [00:29:26.69] Just picture going to an alley at night in some person that you don’t know, and just handing over cash and getting powder, like, for instance, going to a machine where you know exactly what you’re getting and what the dose is like, to me, there’s just no, you know, that should just resonate with people. Well, of course, we don’t want people just going and buying random stuff. The safe supply to me just makes so much sense.

Daniella: [00:29:52.85] Techno-solutionism is a term applied to the sort of bandaid solutions of technology. Think Canada’s COVID app. It was a place where a lot of people hung their hopes for the end of the pandemic. Tech Solutions bring a host of other concerns related to data collection and overall effectiveness. And often, the most effective solutions to problems are the boring ones we already know.

Meenakshi: [00:30:17.78] Everyone wants to kind of think that there’s like this new technological solution, right? And really, it’s like as simple as a door that you have the key to that a housing provider can’t lock you out of.

Daniella: [00:30:30.50] This is Meenakshi Mannoe, police accountability campaigner at Pivot Legal Society.

Meenakshi: [00:30:35.93] Sometimes there’s a pressure to like think of the new, new thing, but I’m like, No, it’s just housing. And again, like none of these things are new. We all know that housing is key to safety. We know that adequate access to safe and dignified medical care is key to your safety and wellbeing. It’s housing like what I have, which is an apartment that I go into, that I have the ability to lock the door and control who comes in and out. It’s the ability to mainly purchase the intoxicants of my choosing from a relatively safe supply.

Hugh: [00:31:13.13] There are some modular housing down here I refuse to live in. I will not live in these places. The paperwork that you have to do when you move in is humongous. It’s like this thick. You’re coming in, you’re homeless, you’re reading this. It’s like, Oh, I don’t want to sign this. You sign it or you get no housing. That’s bullsh*t, because you’re telling people, if you don’t sign this and you don’t let me come in your room when I want and do this when I want you’re going back out in the streets. So people are signing, I believe, under duress.

Meenakshi: [00:31:46.64] I think it’s about the broader way that people who live in poverty are subject to surveillance. And often that surveillance involves health, social services, police, the criminal justice system, your family, if they’re not a resource, but actually like people who just want to manage you.

Daniella: [00:32:06.14] We talked about the everyday surveillance people face when they’re just trying to survive. Meenakshi makes the point that while police departments are trying to bolster their image with diversity drives in hiring, it doesn’t change the function of the organization.

Meenakshi: [00:32:20.99] Because when you look at it all, you’re like, This is silly. A cop is a cop is a cop, right? Like at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me if they are racialized or queer or trans or like an immigrant, and same goes for police board members, and like you are choosing to uphold this violent occupying regime. And you may think and there might be some people, some liberals, some centrists who are fooled by the optics of this. But like, doesn’t matter if the street check is done by a white cop from the suburbs or a brown guy from Surrey. It’s still a violent, degrading act and it shouldn’t matter. Like we should be able to hold ourselves to this kind of analysis around policing, much as the police would try to not have us buy into it.

Daniella: [00:33:12.15] The mayor of Vancouver stepped down for being the Police Board Spokesperson in 2021 because of inaction on systemic racism. The chief of police has stated publicly that systemic racism doesn’t exist in his police force. But the statistics disagree. In 2020, Black people were stopped at a rate of 5%, despite being about 1% of Vancouver’s population. And the number could be much higher because not every interaction with the public is reported or reported as a street check or even recorded at all.

A high profile case showed just how indiscriminate this street surveillance of Black people is. A former judge, Selwyn Romilly, who is a Black man, allegedly matched the description of someone the VPD was looking for. They detained and handcuffed him, even though, according to the CBC, the person they were looking for was half his age. Incredibly, Romilly’s brother was wrongfully jailed in the 1970s, also by the Vancouver Police Department when they had a much less diverse police force. He was jailed because they were looking for a black man with cannabis. The drug war continues to surveil and trap Black people. Sometimes the more things change, the more things stay the same.

As we’ll get into more in the next episode, it’s not only Black men who experience this kind of public monitoring and police surveillance. If you’re Black and have any other identity, especially if you have a disability, you’re at much higher risk of police violence. People with disabilities who maybe can’t see, hear or move as directed, people in distress or having a mental health crisis are often met with police violence. Many don’t survive. And people who experience police violence sometimes become disabled in the process. Meenakshi tells me about many instances of people in mental distress who have died after police interactions in B.C..

Meenakshi: [00:35:11.22] If you are racialized, if you are deemed to be, quote, crazy, it doesn’t matter whether you’re housed or not, or whether you have family support literally in the building with you or not, like you are going to be treated with a certain level of disdain and aggression by the police. And as much as I would love to say that that’s a policing attitude, I think that’s actually a broader cultural attitude and norm towards how we treat people who we decide don’t fit like normal.

Daniella: [00:35:42.96] The Vancouver Police Department has reported that there have been spikes in violent attacks, publicizing them on various social media accounts and in news releases. In response, a criminologist from SFU, Martin Andresen, suggests this focus on violent crime should be taken in context, especially after backlash to calls to defund the police. He says we need to think about data over time and despite what we’re led to believe he also says Vancouver is safer than ten years ago, going by police crime stats. The proposed solution to a perception of increased crime is often more police and more money for police departments. This also means more surveillance for people who are poor and criminalized. Meenakshi says more police won’t help stop these incidents and that violent acts don’t come out of nowhere.

Meenakshi: [00:36:34.11] This stranger danger that the VPD is really espousing at the moment– high rates of apparent violent crime between strangers. To me, I’m like, that’s about desperation. And I think that’s about the desperation that comes from living in a city that’s so unaffordable where there’s a 0% affordable housing vacancy rate, where people are like pushed and pushed and pushed to the limit, right? Like you can’t live in a park, you can’t set up on a sidewalk, you can’t take refuge in a shopping mall. You can’t go to a store because the security guard is going to follow you around. To me, that kind of violence is a product of unaffordability, racism, colonialism.

Daniella: [00:37:24.25] She clarifies that, of course, no one wants to be hurt and being attacked as terrible. She also wants us to think about what it would take for each of us to act in that way. How bad things would genuinely have to be.

Meenakshi: [00:37:37.72] What would it take for you to be, like, violent? Because that’s what’s happening for people. Like, if I was in a situation where I had no stability, where I had no income, where I knew that I couldn’t generate income in the everyday legal economy, if I knew that I didn’t have a safe place to sleep at night, if I was experiencing pest infestation or problematic service providers, like I would be violent too. And I think that people really need to like take a breath and consider like, what would it take for you to act out in that way and extend that empathy to the people who are people aren’t like violent monsters that we need to lock up and throw away the key on. If they are acting in this way that’s really harmful to society, and I do think that like stabbing a person is like harmful to society, I’m not like a stabbing apologist, it’s going to leave someone else with like lifelong impacts. But I also am like. What would it take? What would be going on for me if I were to be acting like that? Like sh*t would be bad. Sh*t would be so f*cking bad that that seemed like the best response to the circumstances I was living in.

Daniella: [00:38:55.24] Things do seem bad and harm reduction makes them a little better. But what does harm reduction look like in the future? In Canada, there have been some steps to mitigate the war on drugs, but it’s far from enough. Groups like VANDU, Our Streets, the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War are doing their best to reduce harm and keep people alive in a city with growing inequality and ever mounting drug poisoning deaths. The city of Vancouver received an exemption from the federal government to try drug decriminalization for personal use starting in 2023. It was approved at a lower quantity than requested. Limited to a certain amount per person. Decriminalization advocates say law enforcement had way too much influence on this decision. They explain it’s far too small an amount to be effective. An unregulated supply means people are often carrying more than the allotment for personal use. People often buy in bulk or together, but now they’ll have to make smaller transactions more frequently. How will officers be able to tell how much people have and will they be charged for intent to sell? If they have more than the allotment. And as for technology, maybe this is where tools like MySafe can help interrupt this pattern of criminalization.

Daniella: [00:40:17.98] On the other hand, even though data capture for people who are made marginalized can genuinely seem inconsequential or neutral, the very idea of collecting data on marginalized people lights up histories of surveillance. People whose data is being extracted for any purpose may have good reason to worry about experiencing harm down the line. Could the data be shared with third parties like law enforcement now or in the future? What about other agencies like Child Services, which disproportionately removes children from Black and Indigenous homes? Even if tech interventions can help minimize the effects of the war on drugs, they’re still a bandaid and they can still leave out the people who are most marginalized.

Organizations like Pivot and VANDU are encouraging decision makers to get back to the fundamental issues. Everyone has a right to housing and everyone has a right to health. There’s not a neat ending for Hugh or other folks in the Downtown Eastside. The war on drugs and the everyday surveillance that comes along with it rages on. Hugh says the streets are full of ghosts, people who’ve been criminalized to death. But VANDU and Hugh are continuing to save lives, including his own.

Hugh: [00:41:40.35] I’ve seen some great things happen here to people. People get their lives back and I’ve been so fiercely and loyally committed to VANDU and to the cause because nothing could ever replace that. No doctors pills, no psychiatrists, none of that crap they give you in the hospital. To me, something like that should be in every community. If people really wanted to help people who are dealing with drugs or trauma or in their lives, their childhood, even now, I believe these places are the way to do it. That’s all everybody wants, you know, kick the habit and get a job or fulfill your childhood fantasy or destiny or whatever you want to. But after a while, it’s hard to come off the drugs when you’ve used it for comfort, for friendship, for coping. All those things are very hard and very deep in us, and it’s not easy because you always had it there right? When things do are bad, you go to it. When things were good, you go to it, you know, and things were bad a lot more than they were good. But when a person can experience something good in their life, when they’re not on drugs, I think it empowers them to go on. Because they said, well, look, this happened and I wasn’t on dope and it feels great. I never felt like this when I was on dope. When you’re not high and you accomplish something, it’s very empowering.

Daniella: [00:43:13.14] That’s it for Rights Back at You this time. You can learn more about VANDU, PIVOT and how to support grassroots groups like the Our Streets Initiative in our show notes and at amnesty.ca/rightsbackatyou. We’ve also linked to another podcast you might like called Crackdown, hosted by VANDU member Garth Mullins.

This episode was produced by me, Daniella Barreto and Serisha Iyar. Written and hosted by me. Story Editing, Sound Design and Post-production Work by Katie Jensen at Vocal Fry Studios. Theme Music by Produced by Youth Podcast Artwork by Sasha Mbabazi.

See you next time when we talk about neighbours, doorbell cameras and who’s spying on whom.


Produced, written, and hosted by Daniella Barreto. Co-produced by Serisha Iyar. Story editing, sound design, and post-production work by Katie Jensen at Vocal Fry Studios. Theme music by Produced by Youth. Artwork by Sasha Mbabazi.

A special thank you to Leon Liberman, Adjua Akinwumi and Serisha Iyar.

Further resources

Ending human rights abuses in drug control – Amnesty International

Recommendations to States on steps to ensure human rights in drug policy – Amnesty International

UN: The promotion and protection of human rights and international drug control: Joint submission – Amnesty International

Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU)  https://vandu.org/

They’re running an art fundraiser right now:  https://www.gofundme.com/f/vandu-art-project

PIVOT Legal Society “Stop the Sweeps Report” https://www.pivotlegal.org/stop_the_sweeps_report

MySafe  https://mysafe.org/

PODCAST – SFU Below the Radar “Episode 191: Drug Policy — with Dr. Kora DeBeck, Erica McAdam, Kali Sedgemore, and Dean Wilson” and “Episode 80: End the Drug War — with Eris Nyx”


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