Participants ranged from 16 to 26 years of age and included 18 women, 18 men and 2 transgender individuals. Sixty-seven percent of study participants were Caucasian, 28 percent self-identified as being of Aboriginal descent, and 5 percent were African Canadian. Half of interview participants reported being homeless at the time of the study, and the majority had experienced homelessness at some time over the course of their involvement with the local scene. All but two participants were currently engaged in drug use practices that they defined as problematic (including the use of crystal methamphetamine, crack cocaine, cocaine and heroin), and over half of these participants had been involved in self-identified problematic drug use for at least three years. Participants were involved in numerous income generation activities (oftentimes simultaneously) including street-level drug dealing, sex work, theft and the exchange of stolen goods. To a lesser extent, some youth also engaged in recycling activities (referred to as 'binning'), panhandling, and street performing (referred to as 'busking'). In sum, the majority of the young people with whom we spoke were significantly 'entrenched' in the downtown drug scene; as characteristic of the wider ARYS cohort, they were largely consumed by the daily project of survival 'on the streets' in the context of homelessness, chronic poverty, involvement in harmful forms of drug use and/or dangerous income generation activities.
Evolving curiosity and 'nonchalant' choices
Youth narratives regarding the evolution of their drug use emphasized several key themes. Perhaps most pervasive of these was the generalized assertion that transitions in drug use practices (including initiation into drug use) represent decision points over which individuals have total control. Young people articulated this sense of autonomy both when they were referring to their own transition experiences ('it was my choice totally - my friends had nothing to do with it') and when referring to the experiences of drug users in general ('they always have the choice - I hate it when people blame others for their mistakes'). Darren ran away from his foster home and became involved in the local drug scene at age 13 - before which time he described himself as being 'totally clueless' when it came to 'hard' drug use (unanimously defined by participants as the use of crystal methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and/or crack cocaine). Upon arriving in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood, Darren was homeless and immediately recruited as a street-level drug dealer - perhaps, he reflected, because of his age and relative immunity from police harassment. He attributed his initiation into crack cocaine use three weeks after arriving to growing curiosity about 'what the hell he was selling people.' Similarly, he described his transition from crack cocaine to crystal methamphetamine several years later as resulting from 'his own fancy' and a largely spur-of-the-moment decision:
It was three years of using crack everyday until I just decided that I was going to do jib [crystal methamphetamine] one day. So it was my choice totally. Then I liked it, and that's the bad thing. That's always the bad thing - same as with the crack... I guess my own fancy screwed me over big time in the end. (Darren, age 23)
The majority of participants attributed transitions in their drug use practices to evolving curiosity and a resulting choice that at the time seemed relatively inconsequential; it was only in hindsight that these choices were sensationalized and recognized as having grave consequences.
A small number of youth, however, emphasized their limited autonomy in becoming involved with increasingly harmful forms of drug use, and the inevitability of progressing to 'the worst kind of drug use out there' (unanimously defined as intravenous heroin use). Marie described growing up 'on the streets' of the Downtown Eastside - a phrase that implies involvement with numerous outdoor and indoor locales with relevance to drug scene activities. During this time her parents were 'off doing heroin,' and she spent most of her time in the Downtown Eastside with the other Lost Boys (from the popular film title, i.e. other youth who grew up on the streets with parents who were heavily involved in the local scene). She reflected that she had 'been around drug use her whole life' whether via peers or her parents, and was 13 years old when she started smoking crystal methamphetamine in the Downtown South. Initially, she recalled avoiding injection drug use because she had 'seen what it had done to her parents.' Nevertheless, Marie described the circumstances that surrounded her transition to intravenous heroin use at age 15 - again emphasizing the role played by a growing sense of curiosity. However - in contrast to Darren's story - she described being fully aware of the long-term impact of her decision at the time; furthermore, she recalled a sense of resignation to the fact that 'kids like her' (i.e. youth who grew up on the streets) inevitably ended up as 'heroin addicts' and 'junkies':
I finally got curious... My friends were doing it and I was like, 'Well, my mom used to be a heroin addict too, so I want to try it'... I thought, I don't know, I was probably always going to do it, because, like, I guess I was born addicted to it because of my parents and stuff.' (Marie, age 16)
All participants made a direct connection between evolving curiosity in relation to a particular drug use practice and having repeatedly watched other social actors engaging in that practice. Even among young people who did not grow up on the streets, prolonged proximity to open drug use (which is particularly ubiquitous in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood) was associated with the redefinition of previously established risk boundaries  and eventual engagement in forms of drug use that were previously viewed negatively. Carla started smoking crystal methamphetamine intensively with her boyfriend at age 16. Upon relocating to the Downtown Eastside at age 20 in order to 'find a cheap place to live,' she and her boyfriend transitioned to crack cocaine use because it was 'easy to get and it was everywhere.' Although heroin use is also ubiquitous in the Downtown Eastside, it remained 'off limits' for the pair during their first year downtown; as Carla recalled, she had always associated it with shameful and public 'junkie' behavior (as she put it, 'I didn't want to become one of those people in the park, nodding off with a needle hanging out of my arm'). However, when the couple lost their single-room occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside due to falling behind in rent, and her boyfriend ended up in jail, Carla described the growing sense of curiosity that led her to contemplate (and then go through with) snorting heroin for the first time:
We always said we would NEVER do that [heroin]. Like never. But about four months ago, I don't know, I just started seeing people doing heroin and I just wanted to try it... I mean, I had always been around it [in the Downtown Eastside] but I guess I just started to notice it more. I tried it, and I got addicted. (Carla, age 22)
Furthermore, youth indicated that a range of social actors - including peers, romantic partners, dealers and 'clients' vis-à-vis drug dealing activities - could play an active role in the definition and re-definition of acceptable risk and 'normal' patterns of drug use. Anka became involved in the downtown drug scene when she was 13, at which time she was already using ecstasy. Like Marie, Anka had grown up around hard drug use (although not in downtown Vancouver) and initially avoided it as a result of negative childhood experiences. She recalled the circumstances under which she and a friend transitioned from ecstasy to crystal methamphetamine only a few months after she relocated to the streets of the Downtown Eastside:
It used to be like me and my friend would get together, and we'd get some caps of E [ecstasy]... And then, after a while she was like 'Do you think maybe we could get jib [crystal methamphetamine]instead of E?' Just kind of nonchalant about it. At first I was like, 'Why do you want to get jib?', right? But then after a while I was kind of like, 'Oooh, yeah, I think that's a good idea.' (Anka, age 19)
Although the transition from ecstasy to crystal methamphetamine could be interpreted as an escalation of stimulant use, it is important to note that participants rarely articulated these types of transitions as such. Rather, as noted above, the vast majority of participants stressed the (as Anka put it) 'nonchalant' circumstances under which they made the decision to transition from one substance to another. The exception was young people who 'grew up on the streets'; these youth tended to view their progression from marijuana to crack cocaine and/or crystal methamphetamine, and then finally to heroin, as an inevitable escalation towards 'the worst drug out there.' For the majority of participants, however, the notion of escalating drug use applied to transitions in mode of use - that is, transitions from smoking (understood as the least harmful) to snorting and then finally to injecting (understood as the most harmful). Youth consistently emphasized that these transitions in mode of use were almost always accompanied by transitions in intensity of use - and by association, an escalation of the harms associated with that particular substance.
Contextualizing choice: the social-spatial and material circumstances of drug scene entrenchment
While curiosity and 'on-the-spot,' non-exceptional choices were associated with the moment of initiation or transition, participants' reflections in hindsight also pointed to the role played by social-spatial and material (i.e. economic) contexts in shaping these choices and prompting transitions to increasingly harmful forms of drug use. The role played by these wider contexts was underscored by those youth who had at one time attempted to exit downtown Vancouver and the local drug scene - oftentimes with the express purpose of transitioning away from harmful forms of drug use - and found that upon returning (whether by choice or material necessity or both), familiar social-spatial networks of drug users and dealers facilitated an immediate transition back into harmful drug use practices. For example, Anka lamented her rapid transition back into crystal methamphetamine use after a period of absence from downtown Vancouver when she was 16, indicating that upon her return she knew exactly who to find and where to go in order to get crystal meth:
My mom sent me away to Armenia to live with my step-dad's family 'cause she wanted to get me off drugs... When I got back from Armenia I just really needed to get high... So I went over to this guy's house, because I knew that he always had jib [crystal methamphetamine] there. So that very first fucking day that I came back, I got really high on jib... I have this little calendar that I kept up. I wrote down, like, the drugs that I did just cause I wanted to keep track... the day that I came back [from Armenia] it says 'jib,' and then since that day, every single day it's full. (Anka, age 19)
The relationship between the social-spatial and material contexts of drug scene entrenchment and transitions to increasingly harmful forms of drug use was perhaps most powerfully articulated by those participants who grew up within these contexts, and without the means to enact or even envision an exit from them (whether in the sense of exiting the physical, geographical boundaries of the drug scene, or the social structural circumstances embedded in these neighborhoods). Among these youth, initiation into drug use occurred at a very young age, and subsequent transitions to increasingly harmful forms of drug use were particularly accelerated. Both initiation and transition experiences were commonly facilitated by an older family member or long-time acquaintance who was themselves drug scene entrenched, and occurred in familiar places (e.g., concealed camps of people who are homeless in downtown Vancouver's Stanley Park, which is adjacent to the Downtown South). As noted previously, youth like Marie and Sara viewed their eventual transition to intravenous heroin use as a 'natural' - albeit deadly - progression:
I was like eight. First time I ever smoked a joint.
[DF: And how did things progress from there?]
Well, smoked pot, drink a bit of alcohol at age 9-10, then I started getting into mushrooms, acid, you know, all the hallucinogens (and eventually with drugs as well). They were all around me down here, right? Then you get into the crystal methamphetamines by 12-13 [years of age], and then you get to the crack cocaine and then you get into the heroin, and then you're done. You're dead... I started shooting [injecting]heroin when I was 15. We [herself and the other Lost Boys] were all at our camp in Stanley Park... It just seemed like the thing to do - I mean, I grew up down here. And heroin's what I'm on right now. (Sara, age 18)
Young people's immersion (or rapid re-immersion) in the social-spatial contexts of the local scene - combined with their exclusion from those places populated by upper and middle class citizens (contexts which might indeed offer a refuge from open drug use) - create a scenario in which youth increasingly viewed drug use as a relevant, mundane and even inevitable choice congruent with everyday lived experience. Within these social-spatial realities, drugs are both highly visible and highly available, while alternative contexts for escape and pleasure (e.g., involvement in recreational sport or arts programs) are completely out of sight - in both the literal and figurative sense.
Participants made a direct connection between drug use transitions and a material reality characterized by, on the one hand, chronic poverty and homelessness, and on the other, a heightened need to accrue income in order to remedy 'dopesickness' (i.e. withdrawal symptoms caused by escalating drug use). In our setting, these material conditions frequently intersect with the ubiquity of drug use and the availability of drugs (as well as the absence of opportunities to gain even low-level formal employment) to facilitate involvement in drug dealing activities, particularly when youth are relatively young and new to the scene. Drug dealing activities among youth in downtown Vancouver are most often informal and range from street-level dealing for relatively higher ranking 'workers,' to 'scoring' (i.e. buying) and re-selling small quantities of drugs for a modest profit. Importantly, these activities facilitate constant proximity to drugs and a range of drug use practices - including those not previously engaged in. Youth frequently hang out with or in the vicinity of their 'clients' (who are perhaps more accurately characterized as peers, friends, or casual acquaintances) while the latter get high, and may use drugs with them (whether they are engaged in the same drug use practices or not). This is especially the case if drug dealing activities are taking place at larger scale, 'multi-purpose' drug using locales such as 'crack shacks' (private residences where one can go to obtain and use drugs) or particular outdoor or semi-outdoor locales. When Lucas ran away to downtown Vancouver at age 14 he had no prior drug use involvement. On his first night in town he was introduced to crystal methamphetamine by 'some guy' he 'met on the street,' who took him to a park in the Downtown South that is also a major center of activity among young crystal methamphetamine users. A few months later he was homeless and began scoring and re-selling heroin to support his crystal methamphetamine use - an income generation strategy that eventually led to a transition in drug use practices:
I was buying someone else's heroin and eventually I said, 'For once, you're going to let me try doing what you're doing, so at least I know what I'm buying ya!'... Before that my friend would use heroin and I would use meth at this apartment where we would go. She didn't want me to try heroin, partly because, like, I didn't know much about drugs then. But I have a very strong curiosity in me, right?... So I think that she saw at that moment I was going to try it no matter what. (Lucas, age 25)
Alternatively, Shawna moved to the Downtown Eastside when she was 15, and soon after began selling drugs via her older sister's pre-existing connections to a well-established network of higher level dealers. These connections also provider her with a place to stay initially - she spent her first year downtown sleeping in the apartments of different men for whom she sold drugs (some of whom she became romantically involved with). She had no prior experience with drug use; however, once involved in drug dealing it was not long before she began 'doing her own product' (a scenario also described by Darren):
I started selling drugs and when I'd finish, I'd go drinking in the bar... [People in the bar started]offering me lines of cocaine, so I started with that, and then I opened what I was selling - the crack. And, you know, I said, 'How do you do it?' and some chick showed me how, and I never went back. (Shawna, age 19)
Shawna's experience - in which she was selling drugs for older men who were also providing her with a place to stay (and eventually with drugs as well) - points to yet another context that can greatly influence transitions in drug use, particularly among young women. In general, youth frequently reflected that in the context of the local scene, the distinction between a 'friend' and a 'drug dealer' is often unclear, and that these 'friend-dealers' could play a critical role in the transition from one kind of drug use to another. For example, Darren's 'spur of the moment' initiation into crack cocaine was largely facilitated by this type of social actor:
Three weeks after I had gotten into town a friend of mine, well, my dealer, he turned around and went, 'Try this!' Hands me a pebble bowl of rock [crack cocaine]and, okay, I stuck it in the pipe, started smoking it and, oh my god. It was a dream come true... I started a grand-a-day habit. (Darren, age 23)
However, it seems that 'boyfriend-dealer' relationships are particularly prevalent in our setting for several reasons. Firstly, the material conditions experienced by young people in general can have especially adverse and oftentimes violent consequences for women - again, particularly when they are relatively young and new to the scene. In the context of unstable or non-existent housing (as was the case for Shawna), it is both protective and economically advantageous for young women to align themselves with men who are 'well connected' on the streets - and this almost always translates as well connected to drug dealing and drug procurement networks. Secondly, these boyfriend-dealer relationships are facilitated by the destabilized social networks frequently experienced by young women as a result of everyday incidents of arrest among young men entrenched in the local scene. The frequent incarceration of young men means that the young women who were formerly romantically attached to them must often seek out alternative social relationships during periods of the latter's incarceration, whether in order to secure greater safety, companionship and/or material resources (including drugs). These shifts in social networks - in which young women realign themselves with a new male partner who is also involved in drug dealing - frequently result in a corresponding shift in drug use patterns. As mentioned previously, Carla transitioned to heroin use shortly after her boyfriend was incarcerated. However, she transitioned to more intensive, injection heroin use after 'hooking up' with a new partner who was also a dealer:
I met this other guy while my boyfriend was in jail... he was a drug dealer and he gave me heroin every day, up to like four times a day... That was when I really got into it. I started doing it more than ever and now I am wired to it [physically dependent on it]. (Carla, age 22)