Vancouver's frontline fentanyl responders make the case for legalization in private meeting with Trudeau

Prime Minister cites difficulties legalizing marijuana as a barrier to real debate around regulating hard drugs like cocaine and heroin

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      Last Sunday (January 29), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould sat down in Vancouver with a roomful of people on the frontlines of B.C.’s fentanyl crisis.

      Trudeau, who was in Vancouver for the Chinese New Year parade, attended the morning meeting at SUCCESS's Pender Street offices in Chinatown. There were about a dozen stakeholders there for the private meeting at the social-services agency, including Vancouver’s police and fire chiefs, among others. Three points were repeated by just about everyone in attendance, according to interviews with five of those people.

      The first was a call for Ottawa to declare a federal health emergency. The second was a request for funding for addictions treatment. The third, for the Canadian government to consider the pros and cons of the full legalization and regulation of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.

      Coco Culbertson is a programs manager with the Portland Hotel Society, which runs Vancouver’s supervised-injection facility, Insite, and 15 social-housing projects in the Downtown Eastside.

      “Everyone brought up full legalization,” she said. And the prime minister’s response?

      “His reaction was that it made common sense, but that creating a policy that reflects common sense, especially around drug-policy reform, is far more complicated than he anticipated,” Culbertson recounted. “To legalize and regulate marijuana, I think he has been surprised by how difficult it has been.”

      She said Trudeau’s reaction was not encouraging but left open the possibility of further dialogue down the road.

      “I don’t think that this discussion is over with him,” Culbertson continued. “I think he heard us very loud and clear. And if he is given a second mandate by the voters of the country, then we could have an opportunity to take it up then.”

      Donald MacPherson is executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and a former drug-policy coordinator for the City of Vancouver. He told the Straight that regardless of Trudeau’s actual thoughts on the legalization of hard drugs, the prime minister made it clear that an end to prohibition is simply not politically viable.

      “In the context of what’s happening now with [legalizing] cannabis, the sense I got was, ‘One step at a time, folks.’ ”

      Citing three decades' experience with politicians and public policy, MacPherson suggested the prime minister may be more open to the idea than he is prepared to let on.

      “He didn’t say anything categorically,” MacPherson said. “He did say, ‘Yes, we can continue with pilot projects and experiments’. And that is clearly referring to heroin-assisted treatment and any number of other things. It could be drug-testing. He didn’t go into detail. From my perspective, that is about as reasonable a response as I would expect.” (Since November 2014, a clinic in the Downtown Eastside has offered a small group of entrenched opioid addicts prescription heroin as part of treatment aimed at managing their addictions.)

      Laura Shaver, president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), told the Straight she left the room with a negative view on the meeting. “The main thing that I pressed is that we need to have legalization,” she began. “And he tried to shut it right down.

      “He said that he’s had such a hard time with the marijuana, that with heroin it would be even worse. But legalization is what has to be done.”


      (Legalization involves bringing the supply of narcotics under government control and heavily regulating their distribution and sale. Decriminalization simply removes judicial penalties for possessing drugs, leaving supply in the hands of criminals who might cut drugs like heroin with even more dangerous substances such as fentanyl.)

      Also in the room with the prime minister were Thomas Kerr, a lead researcher with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Portland Hotel Society executive director Jennifer Breakspear, and Sue Ouelette, a frontline responder who works at one of the city’s new injection sites.

      Other key points those stakeholders were in agreement on were the need for the declaration of a federal health emergency and for more funding for treatment options.

      “The entire room wanted a national emergency or a national crisis proclaimed,” Culbertson said. “If we are not talking about it on a national level, as a national emergency, then the drug users’ lives are not equal to other lives that are lost.”

      Trudeau made no commitment to any policy during the meeting.

      “He just listened,” Culbertson said. “Being in the room and having so much common ground with such a diverse group of first responders and stakeholders was comforting. And I felt that our voices were heard.”

      Health Canada referred questions to the Ministry of Justice, which referred questions to the Prime Minister’s Office, which did not respond by deadline.

      On the campaign trail in Vancouver in March 2015, a journalist with the UBC-based Cited podcast asked Trudeau for his position on prohibition.

      “I disagree with loosening any of the prohibition on harder drugs,” Trudeau responded. “I think that there is much that we can and should be doing around harm reduction. Insite is a great model of that, and I certainly want to see more safe injection sites opened around the country. And I am firm on the fact marijuana needs to be controlled and regulated and that prohibition isn’t working. But I’m not in favour of loosening restrictions on harder drugs.”

      Since 2012, the number of fatal overdoses in B.C. has increased, from 273 people to 330 in 2013, 366 in 2014, 510 in 2015, and 914 in 2016. Last year, the synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in 60 percent of fatal overdoses.

      On January 18, the Straight reported that Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway and Opposition health critic, said he wants an open debate about legalizing hard drugs in response to the fentanyl crisis.

      “I think we are at the point, as a country, where we can start opening a dialogue about finding a better method of distributing drugs, legally, to those who are addicted to them so that we can avoid the unnecessary death, destruction, and crime that is so clearly associated with the current model [prohibition],” Davies said. “I am in favour of starting that dialogue.”

      In a December interview with the Straight, B.C. health minister Terry Lake said he has heard conversations about legalization happening at the federal level and that he is interested in those debates but at this time has no position on the issue.

      “When I was at the opioid summit in Ottawa [on November 18], people would bring this up,” he said. “The federal government, really, has the policy pen on the way we look at controlled substances. A lot of people are saying we should be like some countries in Europe and just legalize all drugs and make sure there is a safe supply. But I’m not sure; I don’t know enough.”

      Attending the meeting with Trudeau for the provincial government was Linda Lupini, executive vice president for the Provincial Health Services Authority and B.C. Emergency Health Services.

      She told the Straight she stressed to the prime minister the toll the overdose epidemic it taking on B.C.’s first responders.

      “There is a another set of victims developing here,” Lupini said. “Those are some of the community support workers and our first responders. This is taking an emotional toll and a physical toll that’s unprecedented. And to keep a workforce resilient in a situation like this is extremely difficult.”

      Asked about legalization, Lupini said that’s a question outside of her area of expertise.

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