16×9: Life at the end of the needle

WATCH ABOVE: A preview for 16×9’s “Heroin for Addicts.”

We are following Kevin, a heroin addict in his 50s, down a rainy Vancouver street and it’s hard to keep up. I can see his anxiety rising. It’s been five hours since his last fix, and his body language tells me he’s already overdue. He’s racing to make an appointment with his needle.

As he approaches the building where he lives, Kevin asks us to turn off the camera. He’s about to make a buy and he doesn’t want to compromise anybody.

At the entrance to an abandoned storefront in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Kevin hands over some bills, and gets a small plastic envelope containing a brown rock, smaller than a marble. Then he invites us upstairs to observe and film. The 12-by-12 room he lives in is cramped, filthy and bug-ridden, with an uncovered mattress on the floor, clothing and empty cans scattered everywhere. He doesn’t bother to lock the door. The most prominent piece of “furniture” is a large plastic container—his “sharp box.” Inside are hundreds of used syringes. He’s already filled the box once this year, he tells us in his best Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not voice.

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I want to hear Kevin’s story but he has other priorities. The first job is crushing the rock into powder and mixing a tenth of a gram of that powder in a tiny tin cooker with some sterile water, and then bringing it to a boil with a Bic lighter. For this work, he needs the help of a friend, because Kevin doesn’t have a right arm. He lost it in a car accident. His friend does the mixing, fills a syringe and hands it to him, and Kevin jabs it without hesitation into the amputated stump, not bothering to look for a vein, or using a tourniquet. It’s called “muscling” and there’s a price to pay—it takes 3 or 4 minutes before the drug makes its way to the brain. That’s a long wait for a smack addict. Mainlining delivers a much quicker bang. But Kevin has few, if any, usable veins left. Even his feet are riddled.

Kevin, a heroin addict in his 50s, hopes to be accepted into a supervised heroin maintenance program mounted by Providence Health Care in Vancouver. 16x9

I scan the room and spot a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality on a shelf. It’s a book about dying. “You read this?” I ask. “Nah, didn’t even know it was there,” he replies as he settles down on his mattress and closes his eyes. A music video by the 70s group “Yes” is playing on his widescreen TV, and I can see Kevin drifting off. A cockroach scurries underfoot. We quietly pack our camera gear and leave. I take a last look. Kevin is stretched out full-length, conscious only of the chemical well-being that’s enveloping his body. “Like a Grandma’s hug” is how he described it to us earlier. It’s a hug that, given time, will probably kill him.

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Kevin admits matter-of-factly that “the powder owns me.” He knows he’s in the grip of a disease from which there is no practical escape. Three injections a day, over 21 years. Do the math. There are more than 21,000 holes in Kevin’s body, and they’ve shredded any possibility of his walking away. He’s tried everything else, but nothing works for him like heroin, that ineffably sweet product of the poppy and pharmaceutical ingenuity. Not methadone, not coke, not Dilaudid. There will be no Popeye Doyle cold turkey triumphs for Kevin. He is well and truly hooked.

READ MORE: Is Health Canada giving addicts free heroin?

In time, Kevin hopes to be accepted into a supervised heroin maintenance program mounted by Providence Health Care, a Vancouver health provider. He has all the qualifications: he’s been a certifiable heroin addict for more than five years, he’s failed attempts at methadone, and he WANTS to unhook himself from the drug. What he needs now is a doctor who will sign the papers that would put him into Health Canada’s Special Access Program. With a SAP letter, Kevin could, in theory, be prescribed pharmaceutical heroin at no cost to him, as often as his body needs it.

Graphic by Janet Cordahi, Global News

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That’s the theory. In practice, Canada’s Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, last year pulled heroin (and cocaine) out of the Special Access Program. The federal government’s policy is simple: No heroin for heroin addicts. Period. However, a B.C. Supreme Court judge temporarily overturned that decision last May, and today 120 Vancouver-area addicts are waiting for the first batch of Pharma Heroin to arrive from Switzerland.

READ MORE: Feds could face legal showdown over addicts’ right to prescription heroin

Kevin would dearly love to be in that pioneering group. He figures he has some useful years left, possibly as a counsellor, warning young people about how easy it is to fall into the honey trap of heroin. But he’ll probably have to wait until the courts and the politicians and the medical community have thrashed out the question of what’s the best treatment for hardcore users.

Until then, there’s little chance of escape from what Gabor Mate has called “the realm of hungry ghosts”—the bleak one-dimensional world of the junkie.

16×9’s “Heroin for Addicts” airs this Saturday at 7pm.

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