Garth Mullins, Sam Fenn, Lisa Hale, Alexander B. Kim, Ryan McNeil, Laura Shaver, Chereece Keewatin | Hillman Foundation

2020 Canadian Hillman Prize Winner

Garth Mullins, Sam Fenn, Lisa Hale, Alexander B. Kim, Ryan McNeil, Laura Shaver, Chereece Keewatin

For us it’s a war. And it needs to be covered like a war — by war correspondents. That’s us.”

Crackdown is a documentary podcast about the drug war — covered by drug users themselves. It is an example of a new kind of collaborative journalism that brings together community members, activists, academics, and journalists to investigate a life-and-death issue in their own community.

About 14,000 people have died of drug overdose in the last four years in Canada. The vast majority were killed by fentanyl, and the scale of this crisis is unprecedented.

Many drug users have found success on Methadone, a medication that for decades has helped people get off heroin and reclaim active and meaningful lives.

Crackdown — in two episodes titled Change Intolerance 1 and 2 — investigated a vitally important but largely ignored event in recent Canadian history that has become known as “the switch.”

In 2014, the province of British Columbia quietly moved nearly 15,000 methadone patients off so-called “compound methadone” and onto a new, pre-concentrated formulation called Methadose.

Methadose was produced by the American company Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and it provided the province with a minor cost savings.

But to nearly all of the 15,000 patients registered in B.C.’s methadone maintenance treatment program, “the switch” came as a complete surprise.

Patients simply arrived at the pharmacy one day to find their regular mixture had been replaced with something that resembled cherry cough syrup. But soon after, people started to wake up suffering intense withdrawal.  

Activists, doctors and researchers raised the alarm, but, again and again, the B.C. Ministry of Health and the drug company dismissed patients’ accounts.

In desperation, patients turned back to heroin, on the black market, to stave off the excruciating symptoms of opiate withdrawal. For many, this was a return to a life they had left behind years ago. And it came right on the eve of the unprecedented fentanyl crisis that took over the drug supply.  

Change Intolerance tells this unknown backstory and makes clear that the crisis was not caused merely by the arrival of new, more potent chemicals but by the loss of access to live-saving medication.

Since Change Intolerance aired in February 2019, “the switch” finally received coverage in the broader news media. The Globe and Mail profiled “the switch” and its fallout, CANADALAND featured a conversation about the reporting and the documentary was featured on the CBC radio program Podcast Playlist.

In November 2019, British Columbia’s Health Minister Judy Darcy became the first official to acknowledge publicly the disastrous effects of “the switch.” Although the community is still fighting to get a choice over what formulation it receives, it has regained limited access to Metadol-D.

The triumph of this program by the Crackdown team extended beyond the positive impact it had on thousands of individual lives. With compelling authenticity, the team also succeeded in telling the dramatic story of “the switch” as part of a larger narrative about the struggle for health, dignity, and justice in the face of government neglect.

Garth Mullins is a drug user activist and award-winning radio documentarian. He is host and executive producer of Crackdown where drug users cover the drug war as war correspondents. This is Garth’s second overdose crisis. He used injection heroin for over a decade and is now on methadone. He is a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and is also a trade union organizer and musician.

Sam Fenn is a documentarian, journalist and musician from Vancouver, Canada. He is the Senior Producer and Project Manager of Crackdown, the host and executive producer of Cited (a documentary radio show about knowledge and power), and the director of Cited Media Productions. Sam’s work has aired on 99% InvisibleLife of the LawThe Doc Project, and Podcast Playlist and has won awards from the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Jack Webster Foundation, the New York Festivals Radio Awards, and the National Campus and Community Radio Association.

Lisa Hale is a freelance reporter and producer based in Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh territories (Vancouver, BC). Her work has aired on CBC’s Dispatches and Ideas. She has been a producer on several documentaries for Retro Report and the New York Times. Her written work has appeared in Nedelo and the Tyee. She takes naloxone and a microphone with her wherever she goes.

Alexander B. Kim is a documentary radio producer, photographer, and journalist based in Vancouver. He is a producer of the podcasts Cited and Crackdown. He has reported on Afghan asylum seekers in Turkey, the overdose crisis in Vancouver, and food security in the Canadian Arctic.

Ryan McNeil is an Assistant Professor and Director of Harm Reduction Research in the Program in Addiction Medicine in the Yale School of Medicine and scientific advisor of Crackdown. He was formerly an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. Through his qualitative and ethnographic research, he seeks to identify social, structural, and environmental influences on risk, harm, and health care access among people who use drugs.

Laura Shaver is a member of the Crackdown editorial board. She’s been on methadone for nearly 20 years. She is a drug user activist and organizer and has served in leadership positions with the British Columbia Association of People on Methadone and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Laura is the Peer Navigator Coordinator at the BC Centre on Substance Use and has won several awards for her work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community, where she lives.

Chereece Keewatin was a member of the Crackdown editorial board. She was a drug user activist and organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Chereece passed away February 20, 2019, one week before Crackdown broadcast its second episode. She was a member of the Cree Nation. At the time of her death, Chereece was president of the British Columbia Association of People on Methadone.

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