In the late 1990s, Sam Sullivan, today the Liberal MLA for Vancouver–False Creek, paid for a 20-year-old sex worker’s heroin habit for a period of three weeks.
He was a city councillor at the time. The story was front-page news in 2005, when Sullivan made a successful run for mayor. During the campaign, he refused to apologize for helping the girl purchase drugs.
“I had become very angry with a society that would let this lovely young woman degrade herself because our morals wouldn't allow us to accept where she was and help her try to move past it without destroying her life in the process,” Sullivan told the Vancouver Courier that year.
In a February 2017 interview with the Straight, Sullivan said that he gave the woman money so she wouldn’t have to resort to prostitution to support her habit. Today, that sort of intervention is called harm reduction. It’s one of four pillars that compose both Vancouver and Canada’s approaches to illegal narcotics. (The others are treatment, education, and enforcement.)
Since November 2014, for example, more than 100 entrenched addicts have received pharmaceutical-grade heroin three times a day at a clinic in Vancouver, paid for by taxpayers. As reported by the Toronto Star, one of the program’s benefits is that a number of its female clients have stopped engaging in sex work. “The women aren’t working the streets anymore,” one of the clinic's patients, told the Star. “I bet you 90 per cent of the women who came into the program were working [as prostitutes] or were dealing....They were mistreated and beaten up and all that by their pimps or whoever. And now they are working in the community instead.”
In 2005, Sullivan was sharply criticized by his opponents with the Vision Vancouver party. Today, however, the Downtown Eastside’s prescription-heroin program has the support of B.C.'s health minister and Mayor Gregor Robertson (the leader of Vision Vancouver).
Sullivan said that for more than 20 years, he’s believed that many of the harms associated with addictions to hard drugs could be alleviated by legalizing and regulating those substances.
“I do believe that we would solve a lot of problems,” he said. "Legalization with strict regulation."
Sullivan placed the idea in the context of B.C.’s overdose epidemic. Last year, 914 people in B.C. died of an illicit-drug overdose. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in about 60 percent of those deaths.
“It’s just so hard to think about 900 people, British Columbians, who are no longer with us,” Sullivan said.
Asked what difference he thought it could have made if drugs were legal, Sullivan replied: “Most of those people would probably be alive right now.
“When you have a product that is regulated and when people know what is in it, that will be safer for everybody,” he explained.
Sullivan said he’d like to see more debate on the subject of legalization. He’s far from alone in making that call.
On February 8, the Straight reported that Dr. Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, said the same.
“This is the discourse that we must have now,” Fry said. “Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’ ”
The previous month, the Straight reported that Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway and Opposition health critic, similarly 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.”
The Straight first asked Sullivan for his views on legalization at a February 7 press conference where he appeared alongside B.C. health minister Terry Lake. Sullivan declined to answer the question. The minister then jumped in.
"I have my own personal thoughts about legalization, but what I am saying is we need to progress slowly," Lake said. "We have to have a discussion as a Canadian society. And that discussion is going on and it is being led right here in British Columbia. But we need evidence to support changes in policy."
In his subequent telephone interview with the Straight, Sullivan described the arrival of fentanyl as a “game changer”. He added that in this crisis, there is an opportunity to jump-start an overdue debate on drug-law reform.
“Public attention is here,” he said. “Will we use that for good?”