These days, it just looks like another cluttered office. Until just over a year ago, however, a room at the headquarters of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users could hold as many as eight people at a time smoking crack cocaine or injecting intravenous drugs.

Vancouver Coastal Health ordered VANDU to shut down its illegal safe inhalation and injection room in December 2013, but activists and experts would like to see it reopened.

“We need to do a lot more to identify effective treatments for crack and cocaine addiction, but while we’re working on that, we need to keep people alive and free from disease and safe from violence,” said Dr. Thomas Kerr, co-director of the Addiction and Urban Health Research Initiative at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

“I think the inhalation room is one strategy for doing that,” he said.

VANDU president Hugh Lampkin agrees. He said the room reduced street drug use in the neighbourhood significantly while it was open, ensuring a safe environment for smokers, where clean pipes and instructions on minimizing disease transmission were available.

“Two to three days after we closed our room down, in our laneway in the back there was tons of paraphernalia all over the place,” Lampkin said. “It quite shocked me, actually. So rapid. We didn’t realize how much people were using our room until it was shut down.”

Lampkin said the safe inhalation room had helped reduce the spread of Hepatitis C among crack smokers. It also provided a form of safety in numbers, he said. If someone didn’t show up for a few days, people would start to notice and start to ask around in case they had gone missing.

Kerr said the possibility of transmitting Hepatitis C by sharing a crack pipe is still being researched, but other communicable diseases, including common ones like the flu, are definite risks.

Glass pipes can explode and cause injury, another potential problem that supervised crack smoking rooms can help reduce, Kerr said. All of these problems get passed on to taxpayers through the healthcare system, he said.

“It’s not a waste of money” to open safe smoking rooms, he said. “It’s not enabling drug use. It just doesn’t work that way.”

The same argument has been made about Insite for years. That institution is allowed to exist because of an exemption to federal law.

Lampkin said Vancouver Coastal Health was legally required to shut VANDU’s safe smoking room down.

“We understand why they did that,” he said. “We really didn’t have the exemption. We did it because we needed to do it. While you’re waiting for all these exemptions, our friends are dying. This is a way for us to do something immediate, right now.”

Both Lampkin and Kerr blamed the federal government for the lack of additional facilities like Insite, whether for smoking or intravenous drug use.

“They’ve chosen to follow their ideology in place of evidence and the result is a whole great deal of not only preventable human suffering, but also immense cost to the health care system,” Kerr said.

With files from CTV’s Peter Grainger