In the feature documentary, Raw Opium: Pain, Pleasure, Profits premiering at DOXA documentary festival on May 7, we meet people from around the world whose lives are caught in the grasp of opium and the heroin that’s made from it — farmers, users and law enforcement officers. One of them is Derek — a heroin user who’s able to get clean needles and access to rehabilitation services at the Insite Clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

With Insite’s threat of closure and a federal election happening today, it seems like there has never been a better time for a film and a debate on drug policy in Canada.

The federal Conservative government has tried to shut down Insite for years, even though all the statistics have shown it to be very successful in its harm reduction objectives. A recently published study in The Lancet concluded that Insite helped reduce the number of fatal overdoses in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by more than a third and reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS. Still, there’s no room in Harper’s Conservative agenda to allow the clinic to stay open.

The Conservative Party is also in favour of criminalization of all illicit drugs and mandatory sentencing (with their ‘tough on crime’ approach to their new crime bill — Bill S-10), even though none of the other political parties will support it. Their bill is costly and has not proven effective in any jurisdiction it has been implemented.

Even in the U.S. where the war on drugs began in the early 1970s, President Obama said he wants to consider health policy alternatives to incarceration. Obama’s balanced response lent legitimacy to a policy area long-relegated to the fringes of mainstream political discourse and stood out in contrast to our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s views.

There’s a good chance that the new film Raw Opium can make an impact on current drug policy debates in the public domain by engaging audiences and familiarizing them with the many victims and untold costs of the war on drugs.

In Raw Opium, Derek’s story on the streets of Vancouver and at Insite is connected to the stories of others in their dealings with opium. We meet an opium master in Southeast Asia and an UN drug enforcement officer on the border of Afghanistan hunting down the smugglers of central Asia. Meanwhile, a former Indian government drug czar has had a change in his perspective about eradication and criminalization after visiting opium farmers in a remote province of India and street workers who do outreach with users in Portugal, a country that has decriminalized drug use for the last decade.

The ambitious film, which weaves together many countries and complex political realities, was conceived by Robert Lang, the producer and co-writer, just after he had completed the Gemini Award-winning documentary series called Diamond Road, on the global diamond trade and its effects on the people whose lives were caught in its clutch. “We felt that a similar treatment for the opium world would reveal surprising connections that are important for an effective analysis of the context in which drug policy is formulated,” said Lang.

The world premiere of Raw Opium takes place on May 7 at DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver. The Toronto premiere is on May 25 at the Royal Cinema, with subsequent screenings planned throughout the rest of Canada and the U.S.

To find out more about the film and upcoming screenings, visit

Amanda Connon-Unda is a freelance journalist and the social media lead for Kensington Communications Inc., the producer of the feature documentary Raw Opium.