At her office in the Downtown Eastside, Lorna Bird argued that Canada’s drug laws actually hurt people a lot more than the drugs themselves
“I lost two daughters to the war on drugs,” she told the Georgia Straight.
The first one died of AIDS in 1994. Bird explained that at the time, Vancouver needle-exchange programs operated with a strict one-for-one requirement. That forced intravenous-drug users to share dirty needles, spreading HIV.
In 2008, another daughter died of an overdose. Bird maintained that if she had been able to purchase drugs legally, from a supply that was regulated and, therefore, clean, she would still be alive today.
Bird said she’s bringing those experiences to her role as the new president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).
It’s the Downtown Eastside nonprofit’s first time appointing an indigenous woman to its top position. Bird is Métis. She said she doesn’t dwell on her background, but she added: “It lets me give people a voice.”
Bird takes the helm of VANDU during its 20th anniversary and in the midst of an overdose crisis that last year killed 216 people in the city of Vancouver and 931 across B.C.
“At first, I remember counting how many people that I had to use naloxone on,” Bird recounted. “And now it’s so many that I don’t even count anymore.”
She said she wants to apply the lessons she learned losing her daughters to VANDU’s work responding to the fentanyl crisis.
“If doctors had the right to write us prescriptions for what we want and need, we wouldn’t have to go to a corner,” Bird explained. “That’s the only way that they’re going to be able to stop this fentanyl shit, because then nobody will have to go out there and buy it.”
In recent months, Health Canada has made it easier for doctors to import prescription heroin, and, on May 20, Health Minister Jane Philpott told CBC News the controversial treatment should be considered a legitimate tool in the country’s response to the fentanyl crisis.
“With people who don't respond to the traditional treatments like the Suboxone or methadone, the people with the most severe addiction, there's actually great evidence that if you give them clean heroin in a medically supervised setting under the direction of a doctor that you can not only help these people deal with their addiction and save their lives, it can lead to a tremendous amount of stability in their lives,” Philpott said.
Bird said that needs to continue, and quickly added that policymakers also need to begin talking about cocaine.
According to an April 2017 B.C. Coroners Service report, cocaine was detected in 48.8 percent of overdose deaths in 2015-16. During the same period, fentanyl was found in 43.1 percent of fatal overdoses and heroin in 37.1 percent. The report notes many deaths involved more than one drug and it is impossible to determine which one was responsible for an overdose.
Bird said that is why VANDU’s priority will continue to be to push for the government to legalize drugs and regulate supply.
“There is a way to stop it, and that’s the medical way,” she said. “Until they do that, I don’t know how many more deaths there are going to be.”