Hundreds of people marched through downtown Vancouver today (April 16). Five years into an overdose crisis that’s killed thousands in B.C., protesters called for Canada to regulate drugs. They want the federal government to take the country’s illicit-narcotics supply away from organized crime and offer pharmaceutical alternatives to unknown substances purchased on the street.
“There are thousands dying in this country because of unsafe drugs,” said Louise Cameron of Moms Stop the Harm, a group of parents who have lost children to the overdose epidemic. “Until we have a modality of care in place where there is access to treatment for people who want it, and no barriers to that, we need to keep people alive. To keep people alive, we need a safe drug supply. No one can recover from death.”
Cameron spoke to the Straight outside North America’s first sanctioned supervised-injection facility, Insite, as a crowd gathered there as part of Canada’s National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis.
More than 4,000 people in Canada died after taking drugs last year. The gathering at Insite was one of more than 20 events held across the country as a call for governments to do more to reduce overdose deaths.
The theme for the Vancouver march was “safe supply.” Just before the demonstration got underway, Dr. Mark Tyndall, lead researcher for the province’s Opioid Overdose Response Team, told the Straight that B.C. has likely made as much progress as it can with traditional harm-reduction programs such as supervised injection. He argued that if we’re going to begin to reduce overdose deaths, B.C. will have to expand access to clean drugs that are regulated by the government.
“We’ve come to a point where this [regulated supply] is the only intervention that makes sense,” Tyndall said. “As long as people are buying their drugs in alleys and not knowing what they’re getting, people are going to continue to overdose.”
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 with hydromorphone, a common prescription painkiller that’s similar to heroin. Today’s Vancouver rally was a call to expand access and establish similar programs throughout B.C. and across Canada.
Karen Ward, a drug-policy advisor for the city of Vancouver, also argued that Canada’s overdose crisis will continue as long as criminal gangs control the country’s supply of illicit drugs.
“When we’ve gone this far down the road, I think that safe supply is really the only option we have left,” Ward told the Straight.
There were 1,510 fatal overdoses in B.C. in 2018, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. That compares to 991 deaths in 2016 and 368 in 2014. The synthetic-opioid fentanyl was associated with 87 percent of 2018 deaths, up from 15 percent five years earlier. But Ward argued it is not fentanyl that's at the core of Canada's crisis.
“It is not fentanyl, per se. It is contamination,” she explained. “Picking on fentanyl or this drug or that drug is missing the issue, really. It’s uncertainty. It is not knowing [what’s in a substance] that is the problem.”
Many people who the Straight spoke with during the demonstration expressed frustration with the need for the day’s event, and noted they’ve attended many protests like it before.
We’ve been talking about this for years,” said Dean Wilson, former president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). “For the last four years, we’ve been dying in numbers like we were dying of HIV [in the 1990s]. The solution is really simple: prescribe….We want heroin, we want fentanyl if people want it, we want morphine, we want codeine if people want that. Prescribe it.”
Wilson suggested that so many people dying every year for so many years now serves as clear evidence that those who are in positions of power simply do not care about the lives of people who use drugs.
“They actually love it,” he said. “They don’t have to do anything and we die off in huge numbers. I just don’t believe in government anymore. They all lie. And they’re all full of shit.”
Harsh words, but it’s unlikely there was anyone within earshot who might take offence. The only politicians the Straight spotted attending the demonstration were Vancouver city councilor Jean Swanson and Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan.
From Insite, the march proceeded along East Hastings Street and then up Granville Street, to the north steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. There, the event’s MC, Tina Shaw, asked for people to set any judgments they might hold aside and follow the scientific evidence that shows that regulating drugs will save lives.
“Safe supply equals life,” she said. “Plain and simple. Whether you agree with drug use or not, the point is that people are dying and these lives matter. They have meaning. And safe supply means that people live.”