A lot of public feedback that the City of Vancouver has received related to the fentanyl crisis is unsympathetic toward people who struggle with an addiction.
“If people want to use illegal drugs, I’m not paying for them,” reads one letter typical of those included in a response to a freedom-of-information request filed by the Georgia Straight.
“They can drop dead for all I’m concerned,” it continues.
The FOI package covers correspondence received by the mayor’s office and the city manager’s office from April 14, 2016—when the provincial government declared a public-health emergency—up to the beginning of December.
During those eight months, the mayor and city manager received 81 pieces of public feedback related to fentanyl or the overdose epidemic.
Of those, 35 emails can be described as taking a negative position toward people addicted to drugs.
“If you’re stupid enough to do drugs regardless of what your drug of choice is and your bad choice leads to an overdose (and potentially death), you deserve what you get,” reads another citizen’s letter. “Has anyone considered that this 'epidemic' is just nature’s way of eliminating the walking stupid who share our space?”
Only 16 emails expressed sympathy for people affected by the fentanyl crisis. Another 30 emails were "neutral" on the issues of addiction or drug use but were included in the FOI-response package because they discussed related issues: for example, arguing that health care is primarily a responsibility of the provincial government.
Much of the correspondence that is either neutral or negative about drug users concerns a 0.5-percent increase to property taxes that the City of Vancouver implemented last December to boost its response to drug-overdose deaths.
“Why should property owners be penalized with a higher property tax to cover the costs of fentanyl over doses,” reads one typical neutral email.
Of those 81 emails reviewed by the Straight, just three expressed support for that initiative.
City council passed the property-tax increase on December 13. It is estimated to equate to a an extra $11 a year for owners of a single-family home, $4 annually for condo owners, and $19 for people who own an average commercial property; it is expected to raise $3.5 million for the city.
In a telephone interview, NPA councillor Melissa De Genova said the fentanyl issue—and especially the property-tax increase—produced substantially more feedback from the public than what was obtained by the Straight. She noted the FOI response does not include messages only sent to councillors and that emails have been “pouring in” to her inbox on a scale she’s rarely seen since entering politics in 2011.
De Genova said she suspects the way Vision Vancouver councillors handled the property-tax increase made people less likely to support its larger response to fentanyl.
“If Vancouverites understood where their money was going, or if they had a chance to have input as to how it will be directed towards combatting the opioid crisis, perhaps we could get more of them on board,” she said. “That would have perhaps been a better option than springing something on taxpayers in 48 hours….There was no consultation.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang said that responding to the fentanyl crisis has been complicated by stigma and a lack of understanding of addiction as a disease. He told the Straight those factors are likely at work in some of the feedback the city has received on the overdose crisis.
“People don’t seem to realize—I don’t think even our opposition realizes, when it says stuff like, ‘We should hand this over to the province’—that we had over 920 deaths last year,” Jang said. (There were 922 deaths across B.C. attributed to illicit drugs in 2015. That compares to 513 the previous year and 366 in 2014.)
“That’s why we’ve been sending out so many press releases, trying to help people understand,” he continued. “I’ve written back many of them [citizens] explaining that what we’re doing is providing money to first responders to help them cope with the number of calls.”
For the week of February 26 to March 4, Vancouver firefighters recorded an all-time high for overdose calls. That number was 174, a tally that does not include calls to police or ambulance services.
The following week (March 6 to 12), firefighters recorded 92 calls for overdoses. Although that marks a substantial decline, that number is still way above what the department once considered normal.
The week after that (March 13 to 19), the number of calls rose again, to 104.
"The City's first responders and front line community service workers are at a breaking point, shouldering a large share of the overdose response in the fentanyl crisis," Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a release detailing those figures.
That document warns that the number of overdose deaths recorded in the city of Vancouver during the month of March is expected to set a record.
“Twelve deaths last week,” Jang said via phone. “Fourteen the previous week. How long do we have to wait?”
De Genova suggested the city spend more money on enforcement.
“I’d like to know where we’re at with our drug squad and the Vancouver Police Department,” she added. “Did they receive enough funding?”