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Then-president of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) Dean Wilson takes part in a protest over HIV and overdose deaths, with a giant syringe in background on July 18, 2002. (HO-Elaine Briere / THE CANADIAN PRESS)* VANCOUVER — A copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms graces a wall around the corner from where a woman lies on the floor as a needle full of heroin is injected into her neck.

She rises quickly, sweeps her long brown hair over one shoulder and sits on a chair as a man is handed a needle by another woman also wanting his help at an overdose prevention site located at the office of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

Vancouver Coastal Health has operated the site since December, but the peer support group known as VANDU began in 1997 with political activists who wanted drug users to demand health services when sharing of needles in the Downtown Eastside led to skyrocketing hepatitis C rates and the highest HIV prevalence of the AIDS virus in the western world.

These days, the painkiller fentanyl has been implicated in hundreds of opioid overdose deaths in the neighbourhood and around British Columbia, the epicentre of an ongoing crisis in Canada.

Hugh Lampkin, vice-president of VANDU, stands at the door as the first woman walks out about five minutes after her injection, past an attendant trained in CPR and administration of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

"Right now the most popular thing is probably heroin, but there’s side," Lampkin says, referring to crystal meth, also called jib.

"We have a horn, and if somebody goes down they call me," the current drug user says. "With the fentanyl that’s around now I try to tell people when I’m training them, ‘Just look to see if people are staggering or they’re slurring their words."’

The not-for-profit organization that is marking its 20th anniversary this month is also home to several sub groups.

They include the British Columbia Association of People on Methadone and the Western Harm Reduction Society, which on this day is holding its weekly meeting by remembering people who’ve died of fentanyl overdoses.

"Let this moment of silence be for them and for many more," says the group’s secretary-treasurer Shelda Kastor, as ambulance sirens wail past the building.

Ann Livingston, a founding member of VANDU, says the group’s first meeting was at a park 20 years ago.

Livingston says stigmatized drug users were being treated as "less than human" so she used her organizing skills to bring them together, eventually helping to create a group led by the people who best know the issues affecting them.

They soon began reporting desperate users grinding up drywall into a powder and selling it as drugs or repackaging used needles, Livingston says.

"It was a real place for action and that was my job, constantly, to have my mind blown over and over again."

"It’s hard to describe how hated drug users are and how disregarded their lives were," she says of the years when 27 per cent of injection drug users in the impoverished neighbourhood became infected, says the Vancouver-based Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

Victories that involved VANDU members include the distribution of clean needles and the 2003 opening of Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.Even after Insite opened, VANDU formed an injection support team of members who helped users injecting drugs in alleys and took the most destitute to the group’s office."You see someone in an alley, they’ve got blood streaming down their arm, their rig is blocking and they’ve got their dope in there and they can’t get […]

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