Between 1997 and 2001, award-winning photographer Lincoln Clarkes created a controversial collection of portraits of women heroin addicts who habituate the environs of East Hastings in Vancouver. Clarkes sarcastically titled the collection, Heroines, and it remains a bitter look at the desperate failure of our society’s social policy related to all aspects of drug addiction and mental illness.
There are no individual stories that emerge from Clarkes’ portraits, the women are not named and they emerge only as anonymous spectres of society’s cruelty. Only the passage of time and third-party research has revealed that several of the women Clarkes photographed fell victim to the predation of Willie Pickton on the infamous Pickton farm.
It is a collection of photographs that has been the subject of both praise and condemnation from critics, but however else it is perceived, it is without a doubt exploitive of the already vulnerable and has redemptive value only in as much as it is a vector for social action.
We haven’t done very well since 2001. Nothing has improved on East Hastings with the possible exception of safe injection sites. In fact conditions are probably much worse since Clarkes’ work was published.
The fentanyl epidemic has killed thousands of addicts since its 2013 arrival on the streets and the daily misery of drug addiction is amped up by the potency of these opioids. It is a world juxtaposed with the incredible wealth that exists next door on the west side of Hastings Street.
Ironically, the west side of the street is no stranger to drug addiction either – it’s just better hidden.
I read an editorial in The Globe and Mail (Feb. 16, 2018) that declared the need for a war on fentanyl. Well, why not? Our past wars on drugs have worked so well, why not start another and waste still more billions of dollars?
The message that emerges from The Globe opinion piece is: “But when drugs are being poisoned for profit, and thousands are dying every year, trying to remove some of the poison is the compassionate thing to do.”
Really, and how many have died from dirty needles, mixing water from toilet bowls, drugs laced with rat poison, hepatitis, malnutrition, violence and suicide throughout the modern history of drug addiction? Where is the compassion for the lost souls of East Hastings and the poisons they have been consuming for a long, long time?
The pre-fentanyl drugs into which fentanyl is cut today aren’t exactly concocted in pharmaceutical laboratories by people with either morals or ethics, and they are no less poisonous, they just may take longer to kill and they usually do so without the drama of the fentanyl overdose.
Fentanyl and its analogues are simply the latest in a long history of illicit drugs. Until we come to the realization that our current model of combating drug abuse is futile any talk of compassion is lost in the wind of hypocrisy.
Leaving compassion aside for a minute, in monetary terms our drug wars have cost society billions of dollars in policing, medical, lost productivity, and social welfare expenditures. In human terms we have wasted lives, destroyed families, ruined businesses, and lost the potential of countless humans, and it isn’t just the addicts and their loved ones who are affected.
We tend to forget the lives of the first responders, medical staff and social workers who deal with the unending parade of overdose and death. Then we have the likes of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the leader of Mexico’s hyper-violent, Sinaloa drug cartel, who is on trial in Brooklyn as I write, and who serves as a tacit reminder of the depravity that underlies the illicit drug industry.
Compassion can only be realized when we lift the yoke of criminality from the addicted and we begin to treat drug addiction as the medical issue it is. As hard as it is for some to comprehend, many addicts are capable of functioning in society, of holding jobs, and of participating in day-to-day life.
For those who are not, reliable drugs, safely administered, education, mental health supports and safe housing will save society from vast amounts of human misery and wasted resources.
Drug addiction is complicated and while there is little consensus as to the why’s and how’s of the problem, what is not complicated is the understanding that our current social strategies for dealing with drug addiction are deeply and tragically flawed.
The women in Clarkes’ photographs are victims of those flaws and should present not as curious examples of personal failure, but as a damning reflection of our own intransigence to change and our moral and ethical blindness.