October 7, 2020
Review By Kendra Milne
British Columbia is in year four of a provincial public health emergency declared in response to devastating rates of drug overdose deaths resulting from a toxic, illicit drug supply. As of July 2020, COVID-19 had led to the highest rates of overdose deaths British Columbia has seen since the public health emergency was declared in 2016 due to changes to the drug supply and access to harm reduction services.
In the face of the overdose crisis, a group of activists and drug users created the podcast Crackdown. The Crackdown team refer to themselves as war correspondents reporting from the war zone resulting from drug policies and the overdose crisis. An award-winning production, Crackdown describes its subject matter as: “drugs, drug policy and the drug war led by drug user activists and supported by research. Each episode will tell the story of a community fighting for their lives. It’s also about solutions, justice for those we have lost, and saving lives.”
At the time of writing, seventeen episodes of Crackdown have gone live on issues that include: policing; Indigenous approaches to harm reduction; access to a safe drug supply during the pandemic; drug policy in other countries, like Portugal; housing; and many others. Content ranges from informal, personal conversations to hard-hitting interviews that challenge people in positions of power. Perhaps the most widely recognized episodes of Crackdown, “Change Intolerance” and subsequent follow-ups, investigate a 2014 change in British Columbia’s methadone formulation that had catastrophic effects on the people relying on the methadone maintenance program. In doing so, the podcast documents that what policy makers and health practitioners assumed would be a simple drug formulation change turned out to be anything but. Instead, Crackdown highlights how changes plunged users into serious and unexpected health consequences. These included not only the brutality of withdrawal symptoms but also, in an attempt to alleviate them, the necessary return to dangerous illicit drug use. When the people relying on the methadone maintenance program reported this to those who had the power to fix the problem, the change was neither reversed nor remedied. The formulation change and its resulting impacts are now the subject of a class action lawsuit that has not yet gone to trial.
Crackdown is led by an editorial board comprising drug-user activists Laura Shaver, Dean Wilson, Greg Fess, Jeff Louden, Dave Murray (RIP), Chereece Keewatin (RIP), Al Fowler, Samona Marsh, and Shelda Kastor. Garth Mullins is the host and executive producer, backed with production and scientific support. The necessity of grassroots activists and those with experiential knowledge is not a new idea, and in fact grassroots advocacy on the part of Vancouver drug users has led to some of the most progressive drug policy changes in Canada (Fighting for Space, Raise Shit). Certainly, the leadership of people with lived and living experience of the issues covered on Crackdown helps challenge entrenched ideas regarding expertise by illustrating that members of communities affected by issues are themselves experts in causes and solutions. But it does more than that.
The lived experiences and personal stories reported on Crackdown humanize people who use drugs and make real the impacts of the overdose crisis and the structural systems that have caused it. The resistance and resilience of the Crackdown team and the people featured on the podcast lay bare the real impacts of drug policy in Canada in a manner that cannot be ignored. As a podcast, a medium that creates a perception of intimacy, Crackdown unapologetically and viscerally conveys the grief, pain, rage, and frustration of drug users as they lose countless friends and live with the fear of an ongoing overdose crisis. It also conveys solidarity, struggle, and community, all of which are aimed at changing the systems that can alleviate that crisis. For anyone who feels a sense of responsibility towards understanding the root causes and impacts of the current overdose crisis that is devastating communities across British Columbia, Crackdown is a moving and enlightening tool of activism and engagement.
Boyd, Susan, Donald MacPherson, and Bud Osborn. 2009. Raise Shit! Social Action Saving Lives. Vancouver: Fernwood Publishing.
Lupick, Travis. 2017. Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Cited Media Productions, 2020.