‘We want to capture people as humans’: Crackdown’s vital voice

Why you need to listen to the podcast highlighting urgent stories of the overdose crisis.
An early Crackdown editorial board meeting
An early Crackdown editorial board meetingAlexander Kim

The urgency is palpable from the opening sounds of the Crackdown podcast's first episode. Canadian activist Zoë Dodd shouts, "Well, I'm sorry we can't take it anymore when we have to go home to our communities, and they're fucking dead."

Then the discordant chords of punk rock.

"Is anyone else feeling our desperate sense of urgency?” Crackdown host Garth Mullins, a journalist, activist, and, this is especially important, methadone user, later asks listeners. “I tried to count how many of my friends and colleagues have died of overdose. I got to around 50 and I just had to stop. The evidence – and the bodies – are piling up. Government remains unmoved. For them, there is no emergency."

The writing is crisp, resolute, determined. Mullins says that for those on the frontlines, it feels like a war, and to tell the stories of the crisis, it needs to be covered by war correspondents.

"I’m going to gather up a bunch of the activists I work with, who I’ve survived the crisis with,” he says. “And we’re gonna make radio. We’re gonna make a podcast. … I don’t know if this is going to make any difference at all. But we gotta try."

Crackdown has done more than try. It's unlike anything you will hear about the overdose crisis in North America, its stories guided by and rooted in the lived experiences of people who use drugs. Crackdown is crisis intervention, an education, schooling anyone who listens.

Since January 2019, the Vancouver, Canada-based podcast has reported on life-saving unsanctioned drug use spaces, the struggles of sex workers who use drugs, memorials for activists, the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, government-sanctioned access to alternatives to illicit drugs, the so-called brain disease model of addiction, the Covid pandemic, and the brave activism of the Drug User Liberation Front. One episode after the other unspooling a narrative that reveals the truth of what's happening – the truth we don't often hear.  

Episode 7, "Stand down," explores an apparent change in approach and public framing by Vancouver police. Publicly, police said they supported harm reduction. But to people on the ground, it did not feel like much had changed. Mullins talks with people who use drugs, and outreach workers who tell him that police park in alleys near safe use spaces, driving people away from important healthcare. Mid-interview, someone overdoses and people in the alley – including frontline workers and PWUD (people who use drugs) – save him. If police had been posted up in the alley, no one would have been there to help.

And then Mullins goes to the "cop shop" and interviews a media relations officer. That’s the moment the shoe is on the other foot. The script flipped, Mullins drills down on the episode’s central thesis: policing is killing people.

"Laws make us criminals, but drug enforcement makes us corpses," he said. "Policing drives us underground. We become afraid to access health care services. We use fast, in secret, and alone. And slam it all in one go. Police have the discretion not to mess with drug users. And governments don’t have to fund drug enforcement. It’s a choice." 

Sam Fenn, Crackdown's senior producer, said that a desire for policy changes that will save lives drives their storytelling. "There's this anonymous, vague blanket of misery around the overdose crisis," Fenn said. "And we want to capture people as humans in this process, so they don't just get swept away."

Crackdown's editorial board reflects this, including members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the BC Association of People on Opioid Maintenance, and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. They offer a decidedly different vision than most reporting on the overdose crisis. Not sensational. Not exploitative. People who use drugs are the experts and the frontline reporters, serving as correspondents from within the drug war.

Fenn said that when you have PWUD at the table, it keeps policymakers honest. "If you're going to do something that's going to kill people," he said, "then you have to look at a drug user in the eye and tell them."

It's not just policymakers, but journalists (me included) can do better.

It's easier to talk to agencies and law enforcement. It's easier to rely on false shorthands: The Sacklers are to blame; the only answer is abstinence; all fentanyl is deadly, etc.

To listen to people who use drugs should not be a radical act. Crackdown teaches that if we don't have the people experiencing the thing at the table, then we don't have the story.

We make sense of our world through stories. But if the stories don't include the people in our world, we will never make sense of it.

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