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Donald MacPherson sits outside the Dr. Peter Centre, an HIV and AIDS Day Health Program and 24-hour nursing care residence that includes an in-house supervised safe-injection site, in Vancouver, 2015.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Donald MacPherson, a longtime advocate for drug-policy reform who is credited with helping change the way the public talks about illicit substances and the people who use them, is stepping down as executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Mr. MacPherson, 70, has been founding director of the CDPC, a non-partisan advocacy group, for more than a decade. He has spoken frequently about the inadvertent harms that stem from the prohibition of drugs and served as a public critic of what he says is failed government policy, as jurisdictions across Canada fall deeper into the throes of the continuing toxic drug crisis. He has instead called for fundamental change, including legalization and regulation of currently illegal substances.

Mr. MacPherson said he intended to leave the role years earlier, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed preparations for his successor.

“It’s taken longer than I had planned, but that’s fine,” he said in a Globe and Mail interview on Tuesday. “I want to support the organization and see it flourish and do what I can now from the sidelines.”

He is expected to officially step aside when a new executive director is hired in the fall, at which point he plans to spend more time with his adult children and granddaughter.

Mr. MacPherson’s career in drug policy began more than 30 years ago, when he says he became an “accidental tourist” to Vancouver’s drug scene.

“I was running the education program at the Carnegie Community Centre on the corner of Main and Hastings, and so I had to walk through this bizarre scene every day, this open drug scene on the corner,” he said. In the early 1990s, the impoverished neighbourhood was on the cusp of a public-health crisis, with overdose deaths and rates of HIV and Hepatitis C climbing.

“I was sort of stunned that there wasn’t much of a response – a societal response, a health care response. There was a police response, but it did nothing. It just sort of contained the problem in the Downtown Eastside.”

Mr. MacPherson began talking to some of the neighbourhood’s most outspoken characters, among them Bud Osborn, a poet, community organizer and activist; drug-user activist Dean Wilson; and housing advocates Mark Townsend and Liz Evans. He went on to become director of the Carnegie – sometimes called “the living room of the Downtown Eastside” – before turning his sights on city hall, accepting a newly created social-planning role in 1997.

He calls a 1998 trip to Switzerland for an international harm-reduction conference his epiphany. In the late 1980s, the country grappled with problems similar to those of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, including widespread public drug use, soaring overdose deaths and the highest incident rate of HIV/AIDS in Europe. Pressured by cities and local health programs that began opening needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites, the Swiss government shifted its approach to drug use, eventually offering what it called “low-threshold services” such as easier to access methadone treatment and heroin-assisted therapy.

Mr. MacPherson founded the CDPC in 2010.Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

“They had much more to offer someone at the street level than just an abstinence-based treatment program, which was not reaching enough people,” Mr. MacPherson said. “Instead of a system that just tells you, ‘Come back when you’re ready to quit using,’ they welcomed everyone into their service whether they used or not. It was revolutionary to me.”

In 2000, he was named Vancouver’s drug policy coordinator – the first position of its kind in North America. In that role, he authored the city’s Four Pillars drug strategy, which called for new approaches to drug use based on public-health principles. He found an unlikely ally in then-mayor Philip Owen of the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association, who helped open Insite, Canada’s first public supervised-consumption site.

Perry Kendall met Mr. MacPherson around this time, when the former had just been appointed B.C.’s provincial health officer. He described his longtime friend and colleague as an “amazing resource” and leader in the policy field.

“He’s been a thought leader and public voice with a national presence, pulling various constituents from across Canada together – the voices of people with lived experience, advocates, researchers, lawyers, policy wonks, politicians,” Dr. Kendall said in an interview.

In 2010, Mr. MacPherson founded the CDPC, which today comprises more than 50 organizations “striving to end the harms of drug prohibition,” according to its website.

B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe called Mr. MacPherson a “compassionate voice of reason” that has helped the public understand that Canada’s punitive approach to drug use has further harmed those who are vulnerable.

“His thoughtful, academic approach to the issue of drug use has challenged the assumptions on which our laws and policies are based and has helped us understand their foundation of racism and bias,” she said a statement to The Globe. “In years to come, as our country moves towards a more rational, evidence-based approach, I believe Don will be recognized as a visionary.”

Mr. MacPherson said he is heartened by recent policy innovations, including a push for “safe supply” and drug decriminalization around the corner, but that his successor must recognize that fundamental change is needed.

“This is not something that 100 treatment beds, or 100 more supervised consumption services will solve,” he said. “Structural change has to happen sooner or later, otherwise we’ll be having this conversation 10 years from now. And I said that 10 years ago.”

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