Mariner James of the Portland Hotel Society with the machine.
“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 North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, 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 good public health policy, because it prevents users from resorting to risky activities.
The crack pipe vending machine was the dream of Mark Townsend and Mariner Janes of the Portland Hotel Society, a non-profit that provides services to people 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 Center. Recently, I visited the center with Mariner. People were greeting each other as a writing workshop wrapped up, while others waited in line for lunch. I asked if anyone wanted to talk to me about the vending machine that stood in the corner.
Joe, a nearby addict, looked at me like I was an idiot, then smiled, and said, “It’s a vending machine, what else do you need to know?” He said he uses it all the time and that “a quarter is way better than what you would have to pay on the street.” A bit of a debate kicked off about how to improve the machines and other crack-related supplies, like lighters and push sticks.
A woman named DJ chimed in. She used the machine and told her friends about it. She said 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 nodded his head, all too aware of the dilemma.
Mariner hoped that distributing pipes will one day be as accepted as handing out needles to IV drug users. He said, “The stigma around crack use is much higher than, say, heroin or any other drug. There’s a particular quality of panic.” He worried 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 before that. Vancouver Police have come around, 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.” He said, “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 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 feeling between him and the people who use the vending machines or sidle up to his van.
Sometimes, a client will ask for a more subtle approach, so he doesn't announce the van's presence to the entire neighborhood. Mariner will pull into an alley or even use a less obvious vehicle. 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 as an authority.
It's not by chance the vending machine has a happy—rather than official—design; it's meant to contrast cold, highly secured addiction-treatment facilities. The vending machine has an aesthetic that exudes care for the people who will use it. Mariner said, “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.”