DRUG USERS CREATE ONE VOICE
A year-long project to give a voice to local drug users is finally seeing some results.
Known as the Kelowna Area Network of Drug Users or KANDU, spokesman Brian Mairs said the project was started to allow drug users input into the Central Okanagan Four Pillars Coalition, the city's response to soaring street crime and drug use primarily in and around the downtown core.
"The fact is if we didn't have the drug users, we wouldn't have as many problems," he said.
"But at the same time, these people need to be able to voice their opinion and have some say into the Four Pillars."
The project began last January as a credit project by three fourth-year nursing students at Okanagan University College--Melissa Wetteland, Janice Harding and Cadi Arndt.
It's modeled on VANDU in Vancouver, although to date the local organization is nowhere near as vocal or political as its Lower Mainland counterparts.
"They've been working quietly in the background," said Mairs.
"But it took them six months just to begin to earn the trust of the people on the street."
Mairs said the nursing students did that by doing one-on-one street interviews, focus groups in the downtown core and by talking to addicts at local recovery houses.
"It's only been since the beginning of November that we've actually had some users come up and say 'we need a voice,'" Mairs added.
"It took users 11 months to begin to trust them. And they're squares (the street name for people who don't do drugs) so why should they?"
KANDU made its first public statement at a recent Kelowna city council meeting where the Four Pillars coalition briefed councillors on their progress.
Within their presentation was a statement from KANDU outlining priorities for action, including,
* reality based education programs,
* quick access to detoxification and drug rehabilitation programs,
* increased visibility of police in the downtown core, despite the harassment they say they receive from local police,
* a secure, 24-hour drop-in centre and shelter and more shelters for women.
"These were from the users themselves," pointed out Mairs.
"The idea for this is to be community driven by the street population.
Individually, council won't listen to them but together, they have a voice."
At this point, Mairs said KANDU operates as a non-profit society with no funding except for a grant from the federal government for a one-time needs assessment program.
However, Mairs said the project will not collapse when the nursing students graduate.
"They've promised to hand this over to a new group of nursing students, so hopefully it will keep going for a while," he said.
Mairs said he will continue to act as the group's spokesman until such time as a member of the society will come forward to take on the position.
"The idea is for the users to be doing this themselves," he said.
"If they want to invite a square onto the board of directors, they can do that, but otherwise it's going to be the users themselves doing this."