Vancouver city councillors' attempts at unity over the health crisis in the Downtown Eastside have been dashed against the rocks.
The catalyst was a 34-page report put out by City of Vancouver drug-policy coordinator Donald MacPherson and drug-policy program planner Zarina Mulla. Councillors received the report for information at the October 2 council meeting. During the process, Non-Partisan Association, Vision Vancouver, and COPE councillors discussed the update on the status of local and international drug substitution and maintenance treatments, but disagreed on the wording of a subsequent NPA recommendation.
MacPherson, who first unveiled the Four Pillars drug strategy in late 2000–flagging prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction as its components–fielded questions in a quiet meeting in a City Hall bereft of CUPE inside workers.
"There are people still on the street," he said during the meeting. "Until you deal with that [treatment], I don't believe we're going to get to prevention.”¦The solution is to get people off the street first."
MacPherson placed a $10 million price tag–to be garnered "from a variety of sources"–on implementing the projects, including methadone maintenance and heroin-assisted treatment.
Vision and COPE councillors supported the initial intention of the NPA recommendation, asking that council request Sullivan write a letter to the federal government for funding from a proposed national antidrug strategy to go toward ongoing, extended support for the Four Pillars approach. However, the last section of the recommendation read: "including the Chronic Addiction Substitution Treatment (CAST) research trials"; it was this addition that Vision and COPE councillors objected to.
Vision councillors Raymond Louie and Tim Stevenson pushed to defer the report, but were defeated 6–5 along political lines. COPE councillor David Cadman voiced disgust that Sullivan was "favouring one agency", CAST, at the expense of others to aid addicts. (CAST is a proposed research trial that will target the chronically addicted and has a primary goal of a significant reduction in crime by 2010.) Sullivan has touted CAST in recent months, but steadfastly denied he is doing it to placate Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservative minority government would not grant Insite–North America's first supervised injection site–a full extension.
"You, sir, have got your fingers all over it," Cadman told Sullivan at the meeting. Vision councillor Heather Deal added: "Pulling one agency [CAST] out and weighting it is not appropriate."
It prompted Deal to move to sever the original NPA recommendation, allowing all councillors to endorse the Four Pillars strategy and pressuring the federal government for continued funding. Then all five opposition councillors–Louie, Stevenson, Deal, Cadman, and George Chow–opposed the segment of the recommendation keeping CAST as the solitary listed agent, but were again defeated 6–5.
Outside the chambers, after three hours had elapsed on the topic, a relieved MacPherson told reporters he was "glad" the Conservative government had just hours earlier announced they were temporarily extending the exemption for Insite until June 30, 2008. Alongside him, Richard Mulcaster, executive director at the InnerChange Charitable Society, which oversees CAST, shook his head as he glanced back at the council chambers. "We want everybody working together," he said, dismissing allegations that CAST was Sullivan's favourite agency. "It's about working with everybody to solve this."
MacPherson's report notes that InnerChange was set up in early 2007 for the purpose of initiating a treatment program (CAST) "for the most difficult to reach" addicts.
"The InnerChange Society is looking for close co-operation with many experts in the field, including family and user organizations," the report states. "Currently, InnerChange has supported work towards the development of five clinical research trials that will be put forward to Health Canada for approvals. The society is seeking funding sources for the research trials from a range of government, foundation, and private sources."