“Crack pipes: 25 Cents,” reads the sign on a shiny vending machine, painted in bright polka dots. Decades ago, this device sold sandwiches. Now, when you put in your quarter and punch in a number, there is a click, a pause, and a little whirr. Then the spiral rotates until a crack pipe—packaged in a cardboard tube to avoid shattering—drops into a tray. Then you reach through the flap and retrieve your new stem.
According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, Hepatitis C and HIV can be spread through sharing crack pipes. The intense heat and repeated usage that comes with crack addiction can quickly wear pipes down to jagged nubs. Users are always in need of fresh supplies. Like distributing clean needles, making crack pipes available is just good public health policy, as users don’t have to resort to risky activities to come up with the cash to buy one on the street.
The crack pipe vending machine was the dream of Mark Townsend and Mariner Janes, of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), a non-profit that provides services to persons with mental health and addiction issues. There are currently two machines and they’ve been in place for six months. Each holds 200 pipes and needs refilling a couple times each week.
One of the machines is located at PHS’s bustling Drug Users Resource Centre. As I arrive there with Mariner, people greet each other as a writing workshop wraps up, while others queue up for lunch. I ask if anyone wants to talk to me about the vending machine that stood in the corner.
Joe looks at me like I’m an idiot, then smiles, and adds: “It’s a vending machine, what else do you need to know?” He says he uses it all the time and that “a quarter is way better than what’d you have to pay on the street.” A bit of a debate kicks off about how to improve the machines e.g. including other crack related supplies: lighters, push sticks, etc.
A woman named DJ chimes in. She uses the machine and tells her friends about it. She says she’d like to see more pipe vending machines around the Downtown Eastside. “But bolt them down… People go: ‘Hey, pipes!’ And shake it to get them to drop out for free.” Mariner nods his head, all too aware of the shaken machine dilemma.
Mariner hopes that distributing pipes will one day be as accepted a practice as handing out needles to IV drug users has become. He says, “the stigma around crack use is much higher than, say, heroin or any other drug. There’s a particular quality of panic.” And he worries about the possible sensationalism that the vending machines might attract from more conservative commentators.
But community support for handing out safe crack smoking supplies is growing. Three years ago, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority began a pipe distribution pilot program. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users started even before that. Vancouver Police have come round, giving the nod to some harm reduction initiatives, even directing users to the safe injection site and other programs.
Aiyanas Ormond of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users told me the vending machines are “a good intervention. Access to a pipe can make the difference for people having a safe practice.” Citing research from the Safer Crack Use, Outreach, Research and Education (SCORE) project, he noted that significant harm reduction comes from distributing pipes to users in the sex trade. They won’t have to work potentially unsafe dates just to pay for the pipe itself.
Mariner spends his days behind the wheel of PHS’s needle exchange van, doing outreach and distributing clean needles and pipes around Vancouver. There is a neighbourly, comradely feeling between him and the people who use the vending machines, or sidle up to the his van whose purpose is announced in giant letters on the side panel of the vehicle.
Sometimes, a client will ask for a more subtle approach, so as not to announce to the entire neighbourhood what’s going on. Mariner will pull into an alley, or even use a less obvious vehicle. And if a more anonymous interaction is what the user wants, all they need is a quarter. That’s his philosophy—meet people on their own terms, and provide services as a peer, not an authority.
It's not by chance the vending machine has a happy—rather than official—design; as its meant to contrast the typically cold, heavily secured, and clinical facilities for addicts. The vending machine has an aesthetic that exudes care for the people who will use it. Mariner says “part of the design that we chose is to provide a sense of respect and dignity to the user, who is pretty much stigmatized and reviled everywhere else in the city.”
The look and feel says: I am a machine that dispenses a basic health care supply to the community, not a judgement or moral lecture.