The leading female contender for mayor of Vancouver has pledged that if elected, she will "work towards" decriminalizing the personal possession of drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
That pledge appears in independent candidate Shauna Sylvester's plan for a civic response to the opioid epidemic, a one-page document that her campaign released today (September 10).
Other points include:
- "Commit to supporting urgent actions to address the drug poisoning problem by working with partners to ensure a supply of clean drugs for people who use drugs.
- "Provide ongoing support for community-based models of overdose response and peers working on the front lines of the overdose crisis.
- "Work with other levels of government, including indigenous leaders, and health authorities to develop a mental health strategy
- "Work to address stigma and change attitudes towards people who use drugs through education"
The plan repeatedly mentions support for the "Four Pillars" drug strategy, a policy document that Vancouver adopted in 2001 that says the city's response to drugs should consist of prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction.
"If this were our food or water, we would not hesitate to act," Sylvester, a professor at Simon Fraser University, says quoted in the release. "We need to move beyond misinformation, discrimination, stigma and fear, and align our resources to deliver empathetic and effective responses.
"We have allowed this problem to get worse by decades of inaction towards modernizing our approach to drugs and addressing addiction issues through a comprehensive public health approach," she continues. "We need a local government that is committed and equipped to tackle this problem head-on."
Last year, 366 people in Vancouver died of an illicit drug overdose. That's up from 236 in 2016, 138 the year before that, and 101 fatal overdoses in 2014. During the first seven months of 2018, there were 231 overdose deaths in Vancouver, putting the city on track for another all-time high.
The plan Sylvester released today mostly outlines how she would continue with policies and programs already deployed by the Vision Vancouver government led by outgoing mayor Gregor Robertson.
Robertson announced his support for the decriminalization of the personal possession drugs last April. “Decriminalizing possession, combined with health care supports including prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, will save many lives,” he said then.
Sylvester's pledge to "ensure a supply of clean drugs for people who use drugs" would similarly see her government continue City Hall's support for programs that are already in operation today.
The Downtown Eastside's Crosstown Clinic has provided a small group of long-time addicts a clean supply of prescription heroin since 2014. More recently, the Portland Hotel Society has partnered with Pier Pharmacy to make a similar drug, injectable hydromorphone, available to neighbourhood resident who are addicted to opioids. And soon, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention plans to distribute oral hydromorphone (brand name Dilauded) to make such opioid-substitution programs available to larger numbers of Vancouver citizens. These are the programs that Sylvester presumably means she will support to provide clean drugs.
While not bringing a lot to the table in the way of new ideas, Sylvester's plan is not a bad one.
It might win praise from health officials for continuing with policies they've supported thus far. If Sylvester signals she would push the decriminalization question harder than Robertson and Vision Vancouver have, it might also attract the attention of those calling for an end to the drug war. She could do that by pledging to instruct the Vancouver Police Department to entirely stop arresting people for simple possession, or by raising the idea of a legal challenge to Canadian drug laws on the basis they discriminate against people who suffer from a health condition.
While Sylvester's plan for the opioid epidemic might strike conservatives as radical, it likely won't impress advocates for real drug-policy reform until they hear more from her in the way of details.
Vancouver's civic election is scheduled for October 20.