Vancouver Introduces Crack Pipe Vending Machines, and No, It's Not a Rob Ford Prank

So, Canada now has crack pipe vending machines. Two units have been installed in Vancouver, each of which contains 200 pipes. The pipes go for 25 cents apiece, and have been so popular that the machines need to be refilled multiple times a week. Oh, and before you ask, this has nothing to do with Rob Ford.

While the hazards of sharing needles tends to get all of the attention, sharing crack pipes can be just as dangerous. Pipes become cracked and worn after repeated exposure to flames, which can cause cuts on smokers’ mouths and increase their risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis C, or any number of other diseases. Add to this the fact that pipes are often in low supply — and thus passed around from user to user —and you’ve got a public health disaster.

"It’s like giving one condom to ten people to use over ten weeks," Paul Hiebert, a former mental health worker from Canada who writes for Ballast, tells Bustle. "It’s not a good idea."

Enter the crack pipe vending machines. Installed by the Portland Hotel Society, a confusingly-named non-profit that works in drug addiction and mental health, the units offers smokers a safer, cheaper alternative to passing around damaged pieces of glass. They come in cardboard tubes, much like tampons (so they don’t shatter when dispensed) and their low price and availability gives smokers little incentive to go anywhere else for paraphernalia. One buyer tells Vice that 25 cents is "way better than what you’d have to pay on the street."

While it’s obviously preferable for there to be fewer disease-laden crack pipes circulating city streets, there are other goals here as well. For one, decreasing the amount of time that addicts have to spend feeding their drug habits gives them more time, at least in theory, to focus on things like finding jobs and housing, mending past relationships, and addressing the larger life problems that often lead to drug addiction in the first place.

In addition, the units have a professional design and appearance, looking more or less like any other vending machine. This legitimizes the units; both in the eyes of potential customers and the public at large. In the words of Mariner James of the PHS, it provides "a sense of respect and dignity to the user, who is pretty much stigmatized and reviled elsewhere in the city."

Hiebert, who previously worked on a PHS initiative to provide free heroin to addicts, says that in North America, Vancouver is on the vanguard of focusing on harm reduction and public safety as the best policy response to drug addiction.

"It’s pushing the idea of treating drug addicts like they’re sick patients in need of care as opposed to criminals who need to be put in jail and demonized," Hiebert tells Bustle.

Image credit: CTV