An editorial board of user-activists takes on the opioid crisis

July 24, 2019
Photo of the Crackdown team by Alexander Kim

Vancouver, British Columbia, is a historic hotbed of drug-user activism. Following the opioid overdose crisis that affected it in the 1990s, activists in the city’s Downtown Eastside opened Insite, an unsanctioned safe injection site, the first of its kind in North America. The idea was rooted in harm-reduction ethics: faced with a slow-moving government response to increasing overdose deaths, it would provide services and safety. It was constantly threatened with closure until 2011, when the Supreme Court of Canada ensured its survival by exempting it from federal prosecution, citing the operation’s clear benefits. It took more than a decade for the law to catch up with the work of Vancouver’s activists. In that time, a lot of people died.

Crackdown, a new podcast, springs from the same place, the same harm-reduction ethic, and the same people. The show, which began in January, offers guidance for media coverage of the criminalized and marginalized communities that suffer while waiting for public policies to support them. Its journalistic process is directed and informed by first-hand experts in the opioid crisis whose are too often overlooked: users.

PREVIOUSLY: Life-saving opioid addiction treatments get negative slant

Crackdown is hosted by journalist, documentarian, and drug user-activist Garth Mullins, and driven by an editorial board of drug user-activists in Vancouver, including Dean Wilson, a plaintiff in Insite’s case in British Columbia’s Supreme Court. Mullins refers to the editorial team as “war correspondents,” subject to the shifting conditions that phrase implies. Arrests, medication changes, job loss, evictions, and other crises can interfere with attendance at morning meetings. “The criminalization of drug use is like a wrecking ball that’s constantly swinging through everybody’s life,” Mullins says. “We have to have a flexible process that respects that there is never going to be a day where we’re all 100-percent dialed in with no crises going on.”

If you get a bunch of drug users experiencing social policy or different social phenomena over years and decades, you can draw empirical observations out of that.

Crackdown’s team centers on the voices and experiences of drug users, including those of its own editorial board members and their peers.  Depending on the substance or issue under discussion, members might chime in on their own experiences as users, and can consult on language and ethical presentation of discussions. Laura Shaver, a board member who helms the British Columbia Association of People on Methadone (BCAPOM), spoke about her experience being forced onto a new methadone-treatment medication for an episode that details the negative effects the new treatment had on patients. For another episode, Al Fowler, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), detailed his experience renting in a building where the landlord also controlled access to drug treatment medication. An episode about safe injection sites opens at one such facility, with Mullins narrating as a VANDU member helps another inject. We hear the group chatting, chuckling, and singing in the background. 

“Sometimes people need to hear it right from the person who is affected and what they’re going through,” says Shaver says. “This is our time to be able to say what we’ve done, what affects us. Lots of times, we don’t get to.”

Reporting on the overdose crisis and drug use in general has often situated the voices and experiences of drug users in ways that stigmatize them. “It seems like everytime [a reporter] would come Downtown Eastside for a story, they wanted to get pictures of people shooting up in the alley,” says Fowler. “They didn’t want pictures of people sitting, talking, smiling with their friends, or in the park enjoying the sun.” 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Compare Crackdown’s careful reporting on safe injection sites with this 2016 article in Canada’s National Post, which opens with a dark description of the blocks around Insite and then says that the federal government has “clearly been won over” by the idea of safe injection sites. Doug Quan, who wrote the National Post story, says his descriptions and anecdotes “were what I observed the day I visited,” and notes that he spoke with experts who praised the harm-reduction effort. However, he adds, “journalists, myself included, should be more mindful of not falling into the trap of framing stories in one-dimensional or predictable ways.”

The Crackdown team bolsters its first-hand expertise with research and data from Dr. Ryan McNeil, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia and research scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU). Irresponsible media coverage of drug use and users contributes to “a set of policy solutions being advanced that will risk actually producing incredible harm,” McNeil says. While he acknowledges that his institutional research and positioning lend the podcast legitimacy in the eyes of policy-makers, Mullins says that the editorial board’s experiences constitute an equally legitimate data set. 

“If you get a bunch of drug users experiencing social policy or different social phenomena over years and decades,” Mullins says, “you can draw empirical observations out of that.” 

For Mullins, Crackdown’s approach isn’t radical; rather, it’s responsible journalism. “We’re just digging deep into the traditions of really good journalism, being in the trenches,” he says. “We’re trying to return to that more urgent, more direct coverage.”

Crackdown shelves clunky newsroom principles of objectivity, and embraces a deeply subjective approach to storytelling—an approach Mullins considers responsible, not radical. It openly advocates for civil disobedience in the name of harm reduction because, as Mullins explains, that’s how victories like sanctioned overdose-prevention sites were won. “[Our progress] has come from not some benevolent power handing it down to us because they’re nice, but because of us arm-twisting and breaking laws and going out on strike,” he says. “The end of the overdose crisis will probably be no different.”

For the drug users working on Crackdown, this work is tied to their survival. “I know that by the time we finish this podcast, however many seasons, we might not all be there,” Mullins says.

In the first episode, listeners hear from Chereece Keewatin, president of BCAPOM, VANDU activist, and a member of Crackdown’s editorial board. Like her best friend Shaver and many others, Keewatin was negatively affected by British Columbia’s change in methadone-treatment medication. A week before Crackdown released its second episode, Keewatin died. At the start of the episode, Mullins shares the sad news, and explains how he asked Shaver if they should put the podcast on hold. 

“Hell no,” Shaver responded.

“This story is about Chereece,” Mullins continues. “It’s about all of us, and it needs to be told. The crisis doesn’t stop, and neither do we.”

ICYMI: What the media gets wrong about opioids

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. His work has been published by The Guardian, Globe and Mail, Pitchfork, and CBC.