Next Tuesday (April 16), a boisterous parade of drug users, friends, and family, will march from the Downtown Eastside to the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The demonstration will call for government action on the overdose epidemic—a health crisis that killed more than 1,500 people in B.C. last year.
The crowd will consist of parade-style floats, a dance troupe, and live music provided by the Carnival Band. More than a thousand people have RSVP’d for the event on Facebook and more are signaling their intent to attend every day.
“We want this event to show Canadians that we are everywhere, that there are drug users all around us, that we’re organized, and that we are not going away,” David Mendes, one of the parade’s lead organizers, told the Straight.
“We need Canadian people to get together and reset their thinking on drug prohibition,” he continued. “That’s what this day is about.”
More than 20 cities across the country have similar events scheduled for the same morning. It’s Canada’s “National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis”.
The theme for this year’s Vancouver event is “safe supply”.
Leslie McBain is a B.C. member of Moms Stop the Harm, a national group of parents who advocate for drug-policy reform. She explained that a regulated supply of pharmaceutical opioids will spare people who use drugs from the deadly risks of unknown substances purchased on the street.
“People who are addicted to opioids, people who are dependent, and recreational users, have no way of knowing what they are getting,” McBain told the Straight. “It’s a crap shoot for everybody. People do not have access to the harm-reduction services that they need to not die from a toxic supply.”
Last year, 87 percent of illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. involved the dangerous synthetic-opioid fentanyl, according to the province's coroners service. That’s up from just 15 percent five years earlier, in 2013.
“We need to stop these deaths,” McBain said. “The only way we are going to make an impact on how many people are dying is by offering a safe supply of drugs.”
In Vancouver, pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs are available on a limited basis. The Downtown Eastside’s Crosstown Clinic provides roughly 100 patients with diacetylmorphine, the medical term for heroin. And PHS Community Services Society (PHS) and Pier Health Resource Centre together provide an additional 200 people addicted to opioids with hydromorphone, a common prescription painkiller that’s similar to heroin.
Mendes and McBain said the march to the Vancouver Art Gallery will include educational presentations on these opioid-substitution programs and serve as a call for the province and its regional health authorities to expand access to regulated opioids in order to reduce overdose deaths.
“It’s the most-effective method of stopping deaths that we have,” Mendes said. “And it is something that we can do right now.”
The April 16 demonstration is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. at 139 East Hastings Street, the address of North America’s first supervised-injection facility, Insite, which opened there in 2003.
Mendes said participants will meet at this location as a way for Vancouver harm-reduction advocates to reflect on Insite’s role within the movement.
“Insite is a flagship that’s known internationally,” Mendes explained. But he noted that Insite does not include an opioid-substitution program, whereas a number of Vancouver’s newer overdose-prevention sites do offer pharmaceutical opioids alongside supervised-injection services.
“Insite should be a place where we are dispensing pharmaceutical-grade opioids and stimulants,” Mendes said. “We want to push Insite toward becoming a beacon for safe supply.”