On Tuesday (February 21), exactly 914 feathers will hang from the trees in Oppenheimer Park.
They will symbolize the 914 people who died of an illicit-drug overdose in B.C. in 2016. The feathers will be carved out of wood and as many as possible will bear the name of somebody who died after taking drugs.
The Vancouver demonstration is part of a national day of action that is so far planned for seven cities across Canada. In B.C., events are also planned for Victoria and Nanaimo.
In a telephone interview, Karen Ward, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said the event will begin in the Downtown Eastside at Oppenheimer Park at noon. From there, drug users and anyone who wants to participate will march along East Hastings Street to Granville Street. The group will then double back and return to the park, where people will hang the feathers.
“Our overarching demand is to end the war on drugs and for decriminalization, working towards legalization and regulation,” Ward told the Straight.
Decriminalization could happen relatively quickly, she explained. The government could simply amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to end criminal penalties for the personal possession of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Then, in the longer term, Ottawa could create a new regulatory system for the legal supply and distribution of those substances, bringing them under government control to minimize the risk of more toxic drugs like fentanyl contaminating what people put in their bodies.
“If there is a regulated market, people will know what they are getting,” Ward said.
In 2016, about 60 percent of illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. involved fentanyl. That’s up from 31 percent the previous year and from just five percent in 2012. On February 1, the provincial government confirmed that another synthetic opioid called carfentanil is present in B.C. drugs. That substance is significantly more dangerous than fentanyl.
It is not only activists who have suggested that legalization and regulation might be the best way to reduce drug-overdose deaths.
On February 8, the Straight reported that Dr. Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, said it's time Canada begin a debate on the issue.
“This is the discourse that we must have now,” Fry said. “Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’ ”
The previous month, the Straight reported that Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway and Opposition health critic, similarly said he wants an open debate about legalizing hard drugs in response to the fentanyl crisis.
“I think we are at the point, as a country, where we can start opening a dialogue about finding a better method of distributing drugs, legally, to those who are addicted to them so that we can avoid the unnecessary death, destruction, and crime that is so clearly associated with the current model [prohibition],” Davies said. “I am in favour of starting that dialogue.”
Jordan Westfall is president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), which has a presence in nine provinces across the country. He told the Straight that plans to coordinate a national day of action were prompted by Ottawa excluding CAPUD from a high-level meeting on Canada’s opioid crisis that was held on November 17.
“Federally, we want to see immediate exemptions for all proposed supervised-consumption sites across the country,” he said in a telephone interview.
Vancouver’s Insite is still the only low-barrier supervised-injection facility in North America. On February 6, Health Canada approved three applications for supervised-injection sites in Montreal. Another 10 applications remain under review. Two of those were submitted for Vancouver, two for Surrey, and one for Victoria.