The survivor: Dave Pineau, addict and advocate for harm reduction

As Dave Pineau’s injection drug use snowballed in the early 1980s, harm reduction amounted to a matchbox and a bottle of Aqua Velva.

Pineau regularly shared needles with four members of a close-knit group of friends, all of them homeless on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The men were partial to cocaine and speed, a powerful amphetamine that jacks up the central nervous system. They’d mix the drugs with water, draw the solution into a needle, and slam it into their veins.

They knew the practice came with risks: that hepatitis B and other diseases could be passed in a needle tainted with infected blood. But new needles cost $10 each, while used ones were $5.

So the men adopted rudimentary safety measures.

They’d buy new needles when there was money to spare, and sharpen old ones on the side of a matchbox then sterilize them with cheap aftershave. (Sometimes, Pineau would forget to rinse the Aqua Velva from a needle and would “taste” the aftershave with his first hit; research suggests he likely smelled volatile compounds being eliminated through his respiratory system.)

“That was our idea of harm reduction,” he says.

On the street, Pineau had heard about a dangerous new threat — gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) — but figured he had nothing to worry about as a heterosexual. Yet the disease, which would come to be known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), was already spreading well beyond the gay community.

By the early 1980s, the virus that causes AIDS had infected bloodstreams across the Downtown Eastside, including those in Pineau’s clique.

The first of his friends to be diagnosed with HIV, Pineau is the only one still alive. Two of his Vancouver running mates died from AIDS; two others died from unknown causes.

Pineau has lived with HIV since 1985, which places him among the small cohort of Canadians who have managed the disease for three decades without developing AIDS. He is co-infected with hepatitis C.

Now a leading advocate for a safe injection site in Ottawa, he draws on his own experience to make the case.

“I think my life would have been very different if there was real harm reduction when I was young,” says the 55-year-old Pineau.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre recently announced that it plans to renew its attempt to open a safe injection site in downtown Ottawa. Neighbourhood consultations begin Monday, even though Mayor Jim Watson and Police Chief Charles Bordeleau remain deadset against the idea.

Pineau contends a safe injection site would save lives by giving drug users a place to obtain clean needles and inject drugs under a nurse’s supervision.

“This is basic health care for us,” he says.

Estimates suggest Pineau is one of about 5,600 injection drug users in Ottawa, a population at high risk of death and disease. According to Ottawa Public Health, 10 per cent of injection drug users in the city have been diagnosed with HIV, while 70 per cent have hepatitis C. As many as 50 people die in Ottawa every year from drug overdoses, while hundreds more are hospitalized.

During the chaos of his addict’s life, Pineau has come close to death a handful of times due to overdoses. He has sold drugs and delivered them; he has shoplifted and thieved to finance his habit. He has been beaten for trying to defraud a drug dealer. Once, he woke up beside a dead woman, but he can’t remember her name.

“It’s surprising I’m still alive,” he admits. “But I feel like I’m here because there’s something I’m meant to do.”

Dave Pineau grew up in a middle class home in Windsor, where his father was a federal customs agent and his mother a sales clerk at Sears. It was, he says, a loving and stable home.

But as a young teen, Pineau wanted desperately to be accepted into his school’s fast crowd. He shared his first joint in Grade 8, taking such a mighty drag that he fell over and hurt himself.

If it was an omen, Pineau ignored it.

“You had to do what they did to stay in that crowd so I fell into that trap,” he says.

For Pineau, drugs and alcohol also fulfilled another compelling need: medication. Although it would be decades before his clinical depression was diagnosed, Pineau remembers the way that hash, pot and booze lifted the clouds of despair that darkened his world. Drunk or high, he felt normal, like part of the happy majority.

“That was a trap for me,” he says.

Pineau’s addiction flowered quickly. In Grade 9, he dropped out of school and began to drink at home. Conflict with his parents escalated. They wanted him to get a job, cut his hair, straighten up, but Pineau wouldn’t bend to their will.

“I was very entrenched,” he says.

His spiral accelerated. He was caught shoplifting record albums — Pineau was partial to Black Sabbath — and was sent to a group home. Later, he was arrested for selling $1 joints to other kids in a park.

In court, he saw his parents walk in with a lawyer and thought they were about to ride to his rescue. His father, John, set him straight: “The lawyer is for us, not for you.”

Pineau was sentenced to time in a detention home, but his addiction and depression went untreated. He turned to fraud to finance his habit — returning stolen department store merchandise for cash — then attempted to rob a local pet store at knifepoint. The woman behind the counter refused to give him anything so he fled empty-handed.

“Stupid. Stupid. Stupid,” Pineau says of the robbery attempt.

In March 1979, afraid of being sent to jail, Pineau and a girlfriend boarded a bus for Vancouver.

They were broke and hungry by the time they reached Calgary.



In Vancouver, the couple soon went their separate ways and Pineau ended up on the drug-infected streets of the Downtown Eastside. Eighteen years old, he began to use hard drugs in order to assimilate.

“The unwritten rule was that if you wanted to stay part of a street crowd, you had to do what they were doing,” he says.

Pineau first tried MDA, a synthetic stimulant known on the street as “Sally.” He crushed some MDA pills, mixed them with water and injected them into his arm in a process known as “smashing.” For Pineau, it brought psychedelic bliss.

“That was it for me,” he remembers. “I fell in love with drugs and smashing. I felt like I could be whoever I wanted.”

He tried injecting heroin, speed and coke into his veins, and eventually fell in with four speed freaks.

The five addicts made money by buying “bathtub speed” from a University of British Columbia chemistry student, and mixing it with Novocain, an anesthetic used in dentistry. They would upsell the mixture on the streets as cocaine — at five times the cost of making it — when pure coke was in short supply. (The Novocain fooled buyers who tested coke by rubbing it into their gums: Street wisdom held that good coke made them numb.)

The group’s hand-to-mouth drug trafficking financed a daily ritual. One of the five would rent a room, and the other four would sneak up the hotel fire escape, armed with what Pineau calls the day’s “accoutrements:” booze, hash, pot and enough hard drugs to stoke five addictions — and forestall a next-day crash.

“At first it was great,” says Pineau, “but the more you got involved with your habit, the more of a grind it was.”

The five became ever more nervous about being arrested or found out as fraud artists. It also became more difficult to hold enough drugs in reserve each night to avoid jonesing the next day.

Then, quite unexpectedly, Pineau escaped the grind. In October 1984, he met a woman, Judy, who owned a car and held a job. They hit it off and moved in together.

Pineau stopped using drugs, held down a part-time job, and began to take courses towards his high school equivalency diploma.

“Things were pretty good for the first time in a long time,” he says.

One day, Judy convinced him to accompany her on a trip to donate blood. At the Canadian Red Cross office, Pineau was too embarrassed to admit his injection drug use on a questionnaire.

It was the spring of 1985 and the Red Cross had just introduced a screening program for HIV.

Weeks later, he received a letter in the mail: “We regret to inform you that your blood has tested positive for the HIV virus,” it read.

Stunned, Pineau called the number at the bottom to understand how long he had to live. “She said three to five years if I was lucky,” he remembers. “I asked if there was anything to do to improve my chances and she told me to stop smoking and take a multivitamin. Then she hung up.”

Later that same year, U.S. actor Rock Hudson would reveal he was in the late stages of the disease. He would become the international face of AIDS.

Pineau was afraid to tell anyone about his diagnosis. His relationship dissolved. He went back to the embrace of cocaine and speed, but this time, he kept strictly to himself.

“Even though I wasn’t gay, HIV was associated with being gay. So I was so fearful of people finding out that I was HIV positive. I feared I would be bashed. I didn’t go out. I had my apartment and I self medicated all the time.”

Pineau waited for years to sicken and die. But it didn’t happen. Thanks to AZT and an early form of the drug cocktail that would prove so effective against HIV, Pineau remained remarkably healthy.

He eventually took a full-time job in a Richmond auto parts warehouse, but lost it when he was discovered injecting drugs in the company bathroom.

When his drug debts piled up, his dealer confronted Pineau at gunpoint and gave him an ultimatum. It ended with Pineau working as an indentured drug courier.

In 1992, his debt repaid, he bought a plane ticket to Toronto to start fresh. But even a five-hour plane ride was fraught with difficulty for an addict like Pineau. He asked the flight attendant to let him sit at the back — he told her he had diabetes — so that he could smash cocaine in the washroom. But he didn’t account for the altitude and almost overdosed mid-flight.

“All I can remember is people knocking on the door, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Where is that sound coming from?’ It sounded like they were trying to break in the door.”

Pineau landed in Toronto, jonesing badly, and walked straight into that city’s crack cocaine epidemic.



Within hours of arriving in the new city, Pineau had scored his first few rocks of crack in a downtown strip mall. At first, he wasn’t sure how to use it since he had only ever seen the powdered stuff. Then he remembered something he had seen on TV: reporter Geraldo Rivera’s investigation of New York City’s crack scene, which showed users smoking crack using an old pop can.

Crack became his drug of choice.

“I came to Toronto and basically traded one addiction for another,” he says.

Crack offered a shorter, more intense high than injected cocaine, and induced powerful cravings for more. Pineau was once so desperate that he tried to scam a street dealer out of a $10 rock while he was penniless, saying he would buy more if the “tester” proved acceptable. The dealer split his head open with a glass bottle.

Pineau lived in a hostel and suffered his addiction for almost two years before turning for help to the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation.

He later joined the foundation’s speaker bureau and began to tell his story to audiences at treatment centres and high schools. He found the work cathartic. “It was the greatest thing I had ever discovered,” he says. “I felt like I was exorcising my demons and at the same time helping other people learn from my experience.”

Inspired, Pineau moved into an intensive drug treatment program, and in February 1996, he was hired as an outreach worker by the foundation. He was promoted and played a key role in establishing a needle exchange program.

For four years, Pineau worked and stayed clean — the longest stretch of his adult life — until suffering a calamitous relapse.

He met an HIV-positive prostitute at the needle exchange program, and invited her back to his apartment in an attempt to dissuade her from sharing needles with an unsuspecting client. He was also, Pineau admits, interested in sex.

Pineau bought booze and dope, and the two binged for days before going to bed together. In the morning, he awoke to find the woman stone cold: her lips were purple, he says, and she had defecated in bed.

The woman had been smashing “peelers”— coated morphine tablets — while also taking methadone as part of a treatment program. The drugs proved a deadly combination.

Pineau panicked that morning. “You know the first thing I did? I phoned my dealer for a delivery.”

After he started to get high, Pineau called for an ambulance to take away the woman’s body. He returned to crack with a vengeance. Within four months, he had burned through all of his money, and had lost the best job of his life.

In November 2000, he moved to Ottawa to reconnect with an old girlfriend and escape Toronto’s crack scene.



At 55, Dave Pineau has been living with addiction for the better part of four decades. Although he has tried many times to overcome his habit, he’s not sure anymore that it’s possible.

“It’s always a goal, but obtaining that goal fades in and out,” he concedes. “Sometimes, I feel it can be achieved, but sometimes I feel I’m just playing around with it.”

Pineau says he’s better today at managing his addiction: He takes the sleep-inducing drug, Trazodone, an anti-depressant, when he’s using to ensure he goes to bed at the end of the night, rather than carrying on for days. “Wisdom does come with age,” he says.

He lives on disability support payments, and volunteers with the AIDS Committee of Ottawa and with community groups lobbying to bring a safe injection site to Ottawa.

He believes it to be his life’s remaining purpose: “I know what’s at stake,” Pineau says.

By Andrew Duffy
Source: Ottawa Citizen