Wednesday, May 03, 2006



In the news lately our hard working Mayor, Sam Sullivan, has been articulating his desire to provide drugs to sex trade workers in order to assist them.

While I haven't yet spoken to his worship, I feel it my duty as someone who has a 35 year involvement in prostitution to provide an analysis of Sam Sullivan's plan.

There is no question that Mr. Sullivan, unlike his predecessor Larry Campbell, is genuine in his desire to assist sex trade workers. A number of questions though arise from the Mayor's proposal.

First is my primary concern that medicalizing prostitution will further stigmatize the sex trade and reinforce our already class system of prostitution. Treating sex workers like drug addicts will only fuel the mistaken impression that prostitution is a disease. Prostitution is a social issue, unlike drug addiction, which needs medical intervention.

Proponents of the Mayor's plan claim that sex workers are drawn into prostitution to feed their drug habits. There is no scientific evidence to confirm this. Individuals with expertise in prostitution related matters, including myself, are not comfortable with the hypothsis that drug addiction lures people into prostituting. Only 10-15% of sex trade workers are drug addicted. However, there is ample evidence compiled by academics Professors John Lowman and Cecilia Benoit which shows 85% to 90% of prostitution occurs off-street and isn't fuelled by drug addiction. This credible research demonstrates that the majority of sex trade workers are not involved in illicit drug activities.

Secondly, with Mr. Sullivan's plan, appearing not to be considered is that most street-level drug addicted sex workers are not on heroin. They primarily use Crystal Meth and Rock. This may be a result of its cheaper cost. Although one can safely make the assumption that these girls need 'up' (coke or meth)rather than 'down' (heroin) in order to turn numerous dates for their fixes. However, the number of dates a sex worker turns are important for any sex trade worker because of the high costs of living in Vancouver. Sex trade workers, including drug addicted ones, have expenses other than illicit drug costs to contend with. Economics play a central theme in why sex workers prostitute.

If you provide drugs to drug dependent people who prostitute, they still must contend with rent, food, clothing and other costs associated with daily living. Add to that, many sex trade workers have children to feed and I question whether it is appropriate to introduce cocaine to mothers who are caregivers to their children.

While I'm not a medical expert, I must question whether heroin or cocaine would be an ideal substitute for those using the drugs meth and rock? Or would we be introducing a pillar of harm production into the already deadly mix of on-street drug fuelled prostitution? The Pickton farm scenario surely isn't so far removed from our past that we have removed from our reality the significance of what went on there. Do we actually want this same carnage to happen again and again in our future?

No question that sex workers who were lured out to the Pickton farm may still have met their deadly fate if they were on a drug maintenance program such as the one being suggested by Mayor Sullivan. I came to the conclusion that in the Pickton murders, economics, indifference and power played a primary role while drug addiction played a secondary role.

I think the Mayor honestly believes that certain sex workers wouldn't be on the strolls if their drug needs were met. Essentially, Mayor Sullivan, believes sex workers wouldn't need to turn tricks to feed drug habits if they were given drug substitutes. This is where the harm reduction philosophy most likely comes into play for him. Wanting to implement a harm reduction philosophy is a noble ideal. In fact, Mayor Philip Owen is the grandaddy of harm reduction. He adopted harm reduction as good social policy because he knew the war on drugs hadn't reduced harm for drug users or the communities in which drug use is problematic. He also recognized that drug users were sick people. I am not certain though if we haven't exhausted other avenues for prostitution safety before commencing on a drug substitute plan.

The Harm Reduction philosophy may prove unworkable for drug addicted women who engage the sex trade because as yet there hasn't been any scientific evidence to back up this hypothetical that prostitution is fuelled by drug addiction. Just transferring the harm reduction philosophy to treat a social issue such as prostitution will present many challenges.

Since the injection site opened, drug use on the streets is still rampant. Drug mis-users are flagrantly piping up and publicly injecting up on the streets and alleyways of the Downtown Eastside. This street culture of entitlement has spilled over into many other neighborhoods in Vancouver. The police who contend with the disorder have finally resorted to charging those who demonstrate no concern for the rights of those citizens who are not drug users.

Back though to the drug addicted sex worker. I believe there needs to be a continuum of support and care for these poor souls. We have the WISH centre which provides one free meal five days a week. One can get a shower at WISH and free clothing. WISH was provided a million dollars by VanCity to start-up a wellness centre for female drug addicts who use prostitution as a means to get their fixes.. The city and the Mayor should be assisting WISH to meet this objective of a wellness centre.

Many drug addicted street-level sex workers are living with Hepatitis C, are HIV positive and coping with the onset of full blown AIDS. I'm not certain if introducing heroin or cocaine as a stand alone pillar in these cases would be of assistance except perhaps in the most extreme of situations such as to relieve pain associated with physical disease processes such as terminal illness.

But to introduce heroin or cocaine for management of a social issues like prostitution may prove to be a nightmare.

Many street-level drug addicted sex workers have multi diagnosis. Some are living with mental health disorders along with their drug addiction. To treat mental disorders with a drug substitute such as Heroin or Cocaine would project, in my opinion, a very uncaring attitude. This would be a repeat of the indifference shown in regard to the missing now murdered women cases.

While I support harm reduction as one pillar in a continuum of medical care for drug addicts, I don't think this policy can be blanketedly applied to all disadvantaged groups in society. Yes, many sex trade workers are at a disadvantage in society because there is a lack of political will to make holistic changes to ensure sex trade workers are kept safe until the time as they can take the necessary steps to improve their lives.

Just providing a drug substitute such as Heroin or Cocaine to drug addicted sex workers may only be a band-aid. Like any disease process, optimal results come about by getting to the root of the problem and treating it from that angle.

A sex trade worker should be able to access retraining programs, obtaining an education if needed and help with self-esteem lifeskills training if required. It would be foolish though to think someone being given cocaine or heroin could function adequately in programs designed to improve their lives. But it may be that certain women involved in prostitution are not able to function in society any longer and perhaps a trial of some sort of heroin maintenance program could be looked into to see whether this alleviates their broken lives. But I would oppose introduction of Cocaine as a management tool.

Mayor Sullivan, you now have the political power to provide real leadership and real change. Please bring together a wide consortium of people interested in wellness and safety initiatives for sex trade workers. Let us look into the harm being created by the city's licensing of massage parlours. Let us explore the feasibility of hiring a Youth and Children's Protection Officer so we can provide a prevention program to our City's children and youth at risk of being lured into prostitution. Let us lobby to ensure prostitutes and their children have adequate affordable housing. And let us tirelessly advocate for effective long-term change to our outdated prostitution laws.

I think sex trade workers deserve at least this much considering the wrongs of the past. Don't you Mayor Sullivan?

Jamie Lee Hamilton