Archive for the ‘Vancouver’ Tag

Vancouver’s bold war on drugs

For many years Vancouver has had a serious heroin addiction. So it’s heartening to see that one of the city’s boldest strategies for confronting the problem, launched eight years ago, is continuing to meet with serious success: Vancouver’s government-backed “supervised injection site” — the first of its kind in North America — has helped reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city by 35 percent, according to a new scientific report detailed in the Vancouver Sun.

The news is gratifying for me personally, having invested deeply in the issue with a reporting project I did for Salon beginning in 2003. (My initial story from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside — a neighborhood much changed these days, particularly since the 2010 Winter Games — is linked above.) Reporting another piece in 2006, one of the most striking things I found was that early results from Insite, as it’s called, had already converted some hardcore conservatives. Then city councilor George Chow — who had campaigned vigorously against the injection site when running for office — told me in fall 2006 that conservatives’ ideological fears had been misguided. They had declared that a government-sponsored facility for helping drug users shoot up would only breed more chaos.

“After three years that has not happened, even with an increase in the homeless,” Chow told me then. “Without this facility the drug problem would have been far more out of control. There would be an even bigger problem with HIV transmission and other issues.”

As I wrote at the time, research showed that Insite had also helped sharply reduce the sharing of dirty needles among street addicts and increased their entry into detox and addiction treatment programs. Supporters of Insite believed that the facility’s success would prove a beachhead for a less punitive and more humane war on drugs extending across Canada, and perhaps even to drug-troubled cities south of the Canadian border. Chow himself suggested that Toronto and Montreal, as well as U.S. cities with similar problems, should consider the policy already working so effectively in his own neighborhood.

Now, he and Insite’s other supporters can point not only to a reduction in fatal overdoses but also to a rigorous research report making that same recommendation. The report was published Sunday, as the Vancouver Sun noted, in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet:

The report, compiled by Canadian scientists from the Urban Health Research Initiative, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and St. Paul’s Hospital, goes on to argue that Vancouver’s Insite — the country’s first safe-injection facility — should be replicated in other North American cities where drug use is a common problem. …

In a column accompanying the report, Dr. Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commended the facility’s work in helping drug abusers. “Supervised injection facilities clearly have an important part to play in communities affected by drug use. They should be expanded to other affected sites in Canada, on the basis of the life-saving effects identified in Vancouver,” he wrote.

Maybe city leaders in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York City will finally take notice, too. For a deeper dive into Vancouver’s acute hard-drug crisis, and Insite’s role in helping contend with it, read this piece.

Postcard from Vancouver

A few snapshots from the final weekend here at the 2010 Winter Games.

The Olympic Cauldron at the convention center in downtown Vancouver, early Saturday evening:

The Olympic Rings on a barge just off Stanley Park in Coal Harbour, early Saturday evening. Every time Canada won a medal, the Rings changed color for a little while accordingly, to gold, silver or bronze.

By mid morning on Sunday, every single drinking establishment in the downtown area had a line around the block in anticipation of Canada facing off against the United States in the hockey gold medal finale. Some people were offering $100 just for a guaranteed spot to watch the game… in a bar. On Saturday night, some tickets to the game for sale online apparently were going for as much as $10,000.

A building at Georgia and Burrard streets draped in the Canadian flag:

Vancouver is an international city on a normal day, but for the past couple of weeks has transformed into a truly global village, with legions here from all over the world. It’s been fun just to walk the streets and mingle with the excited and friendly (and youthful) masses:

Bonus question: Is it really true that Russian skater Victor Plushenko was once an American rock star?

The spirit of Haida Gwaii

In late August I returned to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, a place whose ancient, complex culture and astonishing natural beauty are inextricable. Earlier this week, in the village of Old Massett, the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson hosted an epic two-day celebration commemorating the totem pole he carved here 40 years ago. The pole was raised in the village on August 22, 1969, replanting a vital Haida tradition that had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It was a privilege and joy to attend the festivities and to participate in documenting them. Here are a few images I captured (please do not reproduce them without permission), though they only begin to suggest the layers of landscape, art and ceremony that were on display.

The many performers included singers, drummers and dancers from Skidegate:
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Spruce-root woven and painted hats filled the community hall:
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The Tsimshian group Git-hoan, or People of the Salmon, were among the guests invited to perform:
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Eagle Transformation Mask, carved by Robert Davidson and danced publicly for the first time by the Rainbow Creek Dancers:
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Robert Davidson’s 40-foot Bear Mother pole (partial view), raised in Old Massett in August 1969:
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Despite devastation from decades of industrial logging, some majestic old trees still stand on Haida Gwaii. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of local advocates and defenders, the land increasingly has come under protection in recent years.) The temperate rain forests are home to towering cedar, hemlock and spruce:
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Along the banks of the Yakoun River, near where K’iid K’iyaas, the legendary Golden Spruce stood until its untimely demise in 1997. Every year the salmon come back to this essential river artery of Haida Gwaii. At least for now.
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A Supposedly Fun Thing That Seems to Kill Whales

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale — a threatened species in Canada — turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska:

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

Tragic, gruesome and strange — the size of the ship really begins to sink in when you realize that the dead fin whale pictured above is approximately 70 feet long, a magnificent giant cruelly rendered small. (More photos here in the Vancouver Sun’s report, and more here on Flickr.) Consider, also, that soon the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess won’t even nearly measure up to the largest, most consumptive recreational beast riding the seas. That’ll be the stupefying Oasis of the Seas.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will conduct a necropsy to determine if the ship struck the fin whale while it was alive or if the whale had already been floating dead at sea and got caught on the bow. The latter seems the less likely scenario. A fisheries spokesperson, Lisa Spaven, appeared to acknowledge as much: “Vessel strikes are a very real threat to fin whales,” she told the Sun.

Moreover, an account I heard today from a source in Vancouver appears to contradict a statement put out by Princess Cruises this weekend regarding whales in the vicinity of the ship.

“It is unknown how or when this could have happened, as we have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life,” the statement from the cruise company said. “We are not aware that any whales were sighted as the ship sailed through the Inside Passage to Vancouver yesterday.”

But according to my source, two passengers who arrived on the Sapphire Princess in Vancouver this weekend said that several passengers on the ship had seen whales swimming around and under the ship as it traveled the Inside Passage cruise route just north of Vancouver Island.

Spaven, the DFO spokesperson, told the Vancouver Sun that she believes the whale was struck north of Vancouver Island, since fin whales aren’t normally found in the straits closer to Vancouver.

The Inside Passage is famously rich with marine wildlife and is a crucial habitat and migratory route for whales. As the Sun also reports: “This is the second time in the last 10 years that a cruise vessel has come into the Port of Vancouver with a whale caught on the bow. In that instance, in June of 1999, the Celebrity Cruise vessel MV Galaxy collided with an adult male fin whale, which likely happened as the ship transited the Hecate Strait north of Vancouver Island.”

For some compelling related reading, I strongly recommend Charles Siebert’s article “Watching Whales Watching Us,” published recently in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a deep, enthralling account that dives into some provocative thinking among marine biologists today about our evolving relationship with whales — which may yet hold hope, despite our terrible history of assault on one of the earth’s most sublime creatures.

PART 2:
There is more to Princess Cruises’ history with whales. In the summer of 2001, one of its ships slammed into a pregnant female humpback whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska, killing it. As Mother Jones reported two years ago via a National Park Service report, in January 2007 “Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision.”

You can read the rest of the report at the MoJo link above, including details of the six-figure penalty paid by Princess in a plea agreement. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, “in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment.”

Pending findings on the Sapphire Princess and the fin whale’s death, perhaps that assessment needs updating.

I’m compelled to add that I feel a particularly personal sense of investment in this story. Exactly a decade ago, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel into Glacier Bay, along with three good friends, on a 10-day sea kayaking trip. I’ve explored deep wilderness throughout my life, and Glacier Bay was among the most memorable places I’ve ever been. On a couple of days during the trip, we spotted cruise ships on the horizon. We were thankful to be far away from them. In this photo I took from my sea kayak in July 1999, you can see a large cruise ship in the distance (at the right-center edge of the image) heading north against the backdrop of the Fairweather Range.

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We camped on nearby shoreline that night, where an exquisite sunset perhaps hinted at what was to come on day nine of our trip.

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The next morning we paddled into the placid waters of Beartrack Cove to the east. We were sole representatives of humanity in a place that sees little of it. There were colorful marine birds, salmon returning to spawn in coastal streams… and suddenly that morning, one enormous humpback whale. It surfaced about 30 yards in front of our tiny, tiny boats.

The whale appeared to be feeding, its dark mass breaking the surface several times with its huge mouth open. We stopped paddling and tapped the rails of our boats gently to let it know our location. We watched in awe as it reappeared around us at various spots in the cove for about half an hour before it submerged for other waters.

It was the most glorious kind of nervous I think I’ve ever felt, a truly unforgettable experience.

The long goodnight

For a number of reasons Vancouver at this time of year is a great place to be doing some research and writing. Among them is that the sun doesn’t wink out entirely until about 10pm. This was Monday evening, overlooking English Bay.

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Breaking the addiction to the drug war

In Vienna this Wednesday policy makers will convene once again to consider the United Nations strategy for battling illegal narcotics worldwide. It’s a war that is statistically impossible to win. A report today from the Guardian points to the massive cocaine trade out of Latin America to exemplify how the supply-side war on drugs is equivalent to shoveling water on an international scale:

The crucible is Colombia, the world’s main cocaine exporter. Since 2000 it has received $6 billion in mostly military aid from the US for the drug war. But despite the fumigation of 1.15m hectares of coca, the plant from which the drug is derived, production has not fallen. Across the whole of South America it has spiked 16%, thanks to increases in supply from Bolivia and Peru.

Says César Gaviria, Colombia’s former president and co-chair of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy: “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.”

Says Colonel René Sanabria, head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotic police force: “The strategy of the US here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked.”

needleHalfway around the world it’s the same story with the heroin trade out of Afghanistan.

Respected U.S. economists and judges agree: Our long-running drug policy with ideological roots tracing to Reagan and Nixon has gotten us nowhere.

If, as Tom Friedman argued yesterday, we have crossed a historic inflection point for fundamentally recasting our global economic paradigm, then it seems the costly war on drugs should be of a piece. There are no easy solutions, but there are promising alternatives to the status quo. A few years ago I reported an in-depth series for Salon examining “harm reduction” policy implemented in Vancouver, whose emphasis at a local level was on curbing drug demand and its attendant social problems. It appeared to work remarkably well.

There are signs the Obama administration might take things in a different direction. For his new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, President Obama reportedly has nominated Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, whose views on drug policy seem decidedly more moderate than those of Bush-appointed hardliner John P. Walters. As the Guardian also notes today, a report last fall by the Government Accountability Office concluded the war on drugs had failed in Colombia — a report that was commissioned by then Senator Joe Biden.

Against the gratuitous cheeseburger

I’m a fan of cheeseburgers. I’m also a fan of the singer Neko Case. I haven’t the faintest idea, however, as to how the two are connected.

And yet, here they are, dished up together in the lead paragraph of a long profile of Case published in Sunday’s Times Magazine:

“I wish I had a tremolo,” Neko Case said. She looked at the Samburger she was wolfing down — Samburgers and Zinburgers being the specialties of a restaurant called Zinburger, in downtown Tucson, where Case lives, for now. With their maple bacon, American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, Samburgers are a cardiothoracic surgeon’s dream. Case had been talking about singers whose music and voices she admired — Iris DeMent and Roy Orbison prominent among them. She now banged her hand on the table, flounced her bright-red hair, leaned over and said, “I want a tremolo!” Then she looked up and laughed at herself.

Why do so many journalists insist on reporting what their subjects (or they themselves) were eating at the time of an interview? What do such cheeseburgers, delectable as they sound, have to do with the price of peanuts in Paducah? (Note that the reference to cardiothoracic surgery lends no real relevance to the cheeseburger, as the article gives no reason to think Case has suffered physical impediments to her singing.) What follows is a serviceable if somewhat overwrought 4,300-word portrait of the indie rock vocalist from the Pacific Northwest.

The above cheeseburger moment exemplifies one of the laziest tics in journalism, about as ubiquitous as In-N-Out Burger is along the California interstate. This may seem an esoteric criticism of the writer-editor sort, but I bring it up foremost in defense of the attentive reader. Describe to me the details of a cheeseburger, particularly at the outset, and I’m inclined to think that’s one rather important cheeseburger. Until I’m left only half-wondering, “Can I get some fries with that?”

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Veteran journalist and author Sam Freedman contends with the problem in his incisive book, Letters to a Young Journalist. If an article begins with an appropriate anecdotal scene, he writes, it should lead inexorably into the broader themes and content. “I’ve read far too many leads over the years that described someone sitting back in a chair and taking a pensive drag on a cigarette. That scene only matters if you’re writing about lung cancer or tobacco litigation.”

Great journalism can be drizzled with evocative details. But its essence is still focused and lean. It gets to the point. Anything else in the mix is just indulgent calories, perhaps tasteful only to the person who served them up.

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