This Friday (August 31) is International Overdose Awareness Day, when gatherings around the world will call attention to a drug problem that's increasingly global. In Vancouver, the day's main event is scheduled to begin on the south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 7 p.m.
Two hours earlier, starting at 5 p.m., a more intimate gathering will take place in the Downtown Eastside, at 62 East Hastings Street.
"Let our sorrows increase our joy for seeing one another alive," reads a message on the 5 p.m. event's Facebook page. "As we dance to raise awareness and candlelight vigil on Friday August 31st. Please join us. Shine the light. Dance for decrim [the decriminalization of drugs]."
Music will be at the gathering's core. It will begin with a DJ then feature Indigenous drumming at 5:45 p.m. A hip hop group is scheduled to take the stage at 6:15 p.m., and then a rock group at 6:45 p.m., followed by soul and blues at 7:15 p.m.
In a telephone interview, Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), emphasized the two events are not in competition with one another. On the line with Culture Saves Lives' Patrick Smith, both men noted they'll be attending the later event at the art gallery.
Westfall explained the gathering on East Hastings Street is for members of the Downtown Eastside community lost to the overdose epidemic and for the friends and family members of those who have passed.
"The idea is to have something specific for the Downtown Eastside, because of how acutely it is impacted by the overdose crisis," he told the Straight. "It's about making sure that we get the voices of our groups out and our perspective on what needs to change."
Smith said that five years into the crisis, it's difficult for advocates to not feel discouraged.
"It feels hopeless. Helpless and hopeless," he added. "We hear ambulances all day long."
Smith said that's not only because of so many overdose deaths, but because advocates feel they know how to end the epidemic, if only government would heed their advice.
Westfall completed Smith's thought: "We need safe drugs," he said.
While the 7 p.m. event at the art gallery will focus on prevention and treatment, the Downtown Eastside gathering will serve as a call for the federal government to drop criminal penalties for the personal possession of all drugs.
"We firmly believe that is the only thing that will shift things in a significant way and result in fewer deaths," Smith said. "If we decriminalize."
There were 1,451 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. last year, compared to 994 in 2016, 526 the year before that, and 368 in 2014.
Advocates for decriminalization believe that by removing criminal penalties for personal possession, it will help bring drug users out of the shadows, encourage people to ask for help and seek treatment, and allow the government to truly treat addiction as a health-care issue.
While once regarded as radical, 2018 has seen officials with three of Canada's largest cities express public support for decriminalization.
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson was first. “Decriminalizing possession, combined with health care supports including prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, will save many lives,” he said last April.
Then, in July, Toronto medical health officer Dr. Eileen de Villa, made a similar statement. “Our belief, based on the evidence, is that the criminalization of people who take drugs actually is contributing to this opioid-overdose emergency in our city, because it forces people into unsafe drug practices and actually presents a barrier to those who might be interested in seeking help for addressing opioid-use disorders,” she told the Globe and Mail.
Next came Montreal. Earlier this month, the city's public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said she is also in favour of dropping criminal penalties for possession.
"We know that decriminalization is an effective measure, which has been tested elsewhere in the world with good results," Drouin explained (translated from French).
On International Overdose Awareness Day, Smith and Westfall said the hope the prime minister hear's this message.
The Downtown Eastside event for International Overdose Awareness Day is scheduled for August 31 at 62 East Hastings Street beginning at 5 p.m. Details for the Vancouver event starting at 7 p.m. are available at Straight.com. Similar events are planned for Victoria and cities across Canada.