Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
After a unanimous vote to approve a groundbreaking opioid-overdose reduction strategy, including a space to provide opioid users with a safe drug supply, Vancouver’s city council joined hands in the middle of council chambers. There they stood for a minute united, reciting the names of people they knew who had died of a fentanyl overdose.
What a sea change that sombre moment represents. Just 16 years ago, former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen pioneered a harm-reduction strategy that included a supervised consumption site. It was too radical for his party’s supporters and he was dumped as the Non-Partisan Association’s mayoral candidate in 2002. Today’s NPA councillors are proposing amendments to place greater emphasis on safe supply, says Mayor Kennedy Stewart. It should be noted Mr. Stewart is the second mayor to advocate for a safe drug supply; last summer, former Mayor Gregor Robertson backed an opioid distribution pilot project and pressed the feds to decriminalize drugs.
Talk to almost anyone in Vancouver and they will have a friend or family member who has lost someone in the fentanyl crisis that has raged in B.C. since 2014, killing thousands of people. People die of fentanyl overdoses in every Vancouver neighbourhood. Most are men in their middle years using drugs alone. A disproportionate number are Indigenous.
Vancouver’s fentanyl crisis has reached such a catastrophic level, civic politicians of all political stripes are pushing the envelope ever further toward de facto decriminalization. That shift in mindset was evident during a two-day debate and public hearing on the Mayor’s Overdose Emergency Task Force.
Council voted to find a spot for a federally approved pilot project that will distribute a clean opioid supply to drug users through a vending machine. They also voted to spend another $500,000 primarily to bring harm-reduction measures to places where most deaths occur: the bathrooms of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) in the Downtown Eastside and the Kingsway stroll where terrified drug users now hire sex-trade workers, not for sex, but to watch over them as they use drugs they fear are poisoned. That brings the total Vancouver will spend on overdose prevention and mitigation this year to $4-million.
Even that is not nearly enough. Council also voted to ask the province to put more than $2-million into overdose prevention, on top of what they already spend. The bulk of the new money would help increase overdose prevention in non-profit SROs, where deaths are frequent, and fund provincial organizations of people who use drugs to better harness their expertise in the search for solutions.
The provincial government should act quickly on the city’s advice. After just two months as mayor, Mr. Stewart’s task force has crafted a made-for-Vancouver emergency response blueprint that is being applauded by those on the front lines of the overdose crisis. That’s more than B.C.’s Overdose Emergency Response Centre was able to do after a full year in operation. Formed by Judy Darcy, the B.C. Minister of Health and Mental Addictions, the group was reportedly hamstrung by bureaucracy and reluctant to move forward with safe supply.
The struggle between safe supply and harm reduction proponents and those who will only support treatment and abstinence is currently playing out in Ontario. Although the number of overdose deaths continues to climb, Premier Doug Ford’s government recently moved to restrict supervised drug-use sites. That prompted the federal government to craft a workaround by allowing individual cities and harm-reduction groups to apply directly to Health Canada to open sites.
While abstinence is a laudable goal, the first and most important step when a drug supply is poisoned must be to stop the deaths. It takes most people multiple bouts of treatment to successfully wean themselves off drugs. And there are many who never do. With a free, safe supply of drugs, governments can reduce crime and, most importantly, save lives.
Vancouver has always led the way on Canadian drug policy. It is only a matter of time before cities across the country will follow the Vancouver safe-supply model, just as they did for the supervised consumption sites. Time, however, is something street drug users do not have. The province must act fast, blow out whatever roadblocks are in the way and trust the city on this one.