Heroin Hotel, 1960s
In this week’s Georgia Straight, Downtown Eastside bike cop Wes Fung proposes forced treatment for the neighbourhood’s many drug users. According to Fung, the premise that effective treatment must be voluntary is “based on the notion a ‘junkie’ is still able to make rational choices.” But for whatever reason, actual experts have known for decades that, based on experience and experimentation, addicts typically and predictably relapse unless treatment is voluntary.
Frustrated with the status quo, Fung began speaking publicly on the drug issue in the DTES to provoke discussion. The same discussion happened in the 1950s and 60s and culminated in just the type of facility advocated by Constable Fung. Colloquially known as “Heroin Hotel,” Matsqui Institution opened in 1966 as a prison hospital with room for 300 male and 150 female drug users.
Long before Matsqui opened, experts warned that it would be a big waste of money because it ignored all the evidence available at the time. Moreover, it was modeled on a prison hospital in Kentucky that failed to cure most of the addicts that passed through its doors. By 1969, less than three years after Matsqui opened, only 129 inmates occupied the 450 capacity facility. Judges preferred paroling drug users and sending them to the then-new methadone programs because they had a greater success rate than programs at Matsqui. Drug users also had a better chance of kicking dope at Kingston Penitentiary.
Besides the ineffectiveness of its programs, by 1967 there were reports that heroin was freely available inside Matsqui’s walls. In 1969, non-drug users were being sentenced there and it was repurposed as a regular prison. A representative of the John Howard Society explained the failure of the institution: “You can’t learn to face and handle life by being in an incubator. That is, unless you’re going to live there permanently and that will be your life.”
If we’re going to revisit mid-century proposals for dealing with the drug menace, it makes more sense to look at ones that showed (and continue to show) promise rather than trying to revive obvious failures like the Matsqui experiment or, for that matter, persisting with the failed war on drugs.
Source: Vancouver Sun, 8 October 1963, via Past Tense