Driven by the opioid crisis, mothers become activists and call on Ottawa to decriminalize drugs

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      A noisy street protest marched through downtown Vancouver on February 20 calling for government action on overdose deaths. The crowd mostly consisted of the usual sort of Downtown Eastside rabble-rousers who have pushed drug-policy reform in B.C. for decades. But marching with them this time was a straight-looking contingent of middle-class women.

      One of them was Louise Cameron, who told the Straight that she joined up with the national group Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) in the summer of 2017.

      “A dear friend of mine lost her son to a fentanyl poisoning,” she recounted. “It was the third friend in 18 months who’d lost a child to fentanyl.

      “And it just lit a big ol’ fire in my heart,” Cameron continued. “I thought, ‘Okay, enough. Time to do more.’ ”

      Since then, Cameron, who also lost a child to addiction, has worked with MSTH’s B.C. members on specific policies they believe will reduce overdose deaths.

      “The big push right now is about PharmaNet,” she said.

      PharmaNet is a B.C.–wide computer system that allows doctors and pharmacists across B.C. to access information on every patient and all their prescriptions. If someone walks into a clinic, claims a sore back, and asks a doctor for an opioid painkiller like OxyContin, the doctor can log on to PharmaNet to see if they have a history with addiction.

      “One of our members has lost two of her sons, and they had both been prescribed opioids by doctors,” Cameron said. “We don’t want them to cut people off and have them end up on the streets killed with fentanyl….We want people to stay on their meds and to come up with a taper plan, if that’s required. Or to be directed into treatment, if that’s what they need.”

      Another MSTH member is Leslie McBain. In a telephone interview, she said they’re also thinking bigger-picture, advocating for the decriminalization of drugs with the hope that this would minimize stigma and bring drug use out of the shadows.

      McBain noted that the federal NDP recently voted to include decriminalization in its official party platform. But she emphasized that the Liberals, though they’re scheduled to debate the idea in April, don’t appear ready to follow suit.

      She recounted a January 2017 meeting in Vancouver with Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau. “There were about 15 of us and every single one of us said we needed to decriminalize drugs,” McBain said. “And he just sort of made a glib remark. He said, ‘Do you know how much trouble I’m having legalizing cannabis?’ ”

      Last year 1,422 people in B.C. died of an illicit-drug overdose death, up from 993 in 2016 and 518 the year before that.