Illicit drug users host their own college

By Simon Nattrass, July/August 2013

Elders’ stories illustrate challenges.

Misconceptions abound when it comes to active illicit drug users in our community. Police, Block Watch programs, and neighbourhood associations repeating the not-in-my-backyard mantra too often encourage us to view addicts as people to be feared and avoided. 

In early June, I was one of the few people outside Victoria’s street community to be invited to the second annual Convergence of People Who Use Illicit Drugs. The day-long event is the culmination of a program called Street College, organized by and for members of the street community in partnership with AIDS Vancouver Island and the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users. 

During the Street College program, members of Victoria’s community of illicit drug users design and carry out a curriculum for personal development. The program reflects the needs of those who organize it—each year, participants may develop skills or work to address issues of street survival, personal struggle, or institutional barriers. 

In a workshop entitled Elders on the Street, as attendees discussed how Victoria’s streets have changed in the past 15 years, I heard first-hand where the criminalization of drug users has led. Participants agreed (unanimously) that a dramatic increase in police presence downtown has matched an increase in disorder and violence in what was once a coordinated drug trade. “As a teen on the streets,” remembered one participant, “I used to talk to a cop maybe once a week. Now I get jacked up once or twice a day.” 

Another theme in the Elders workshop was the steady decline in the quality of street drugs. One participant mentioned having used crack for several years, only to discover after a visit to the doctor that he had none of the drug in his system. While this may not seem like a pivotal issue, for experienced users who know their limit, unpredictable drugs can easily mean the difference between life and death.

For the most part, even when the topic matter was somber, spirits remained high. A notable exception was the workshop on accessing health care. Nearly everyone had stories of hospitals refusing to help drug users or administering the wrong treatment after assuming that an ill person was overdosing or just looking for a fix. Several participants recalled being asked to sign Do Not Resuscitate orders while under the influence and unable to understand the form. One man even had a doctor refuse to tell him the meaning of the word “resuscitate.” 

There are few reliable statistics, but with as many as 2000 injection drug users in Victoria, the community of illicit drug users in the Capital Region easily numbers in the thousands. Despite discrimination, violence, and personal struggle, the members of this community whom I met that day were warm, caring, and most of all, possessed by a tremendous will to survive.

Simon Nattrass writes about radical politics from Victoria.