Recognized for controversy, Vancouver's former drug czar says the fentanyl crisis requires legalizing heroin

Accepting the 2017 Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, Donald MacPherson called for local governments to ignore federal narcotics laws and work to end the war on drugs

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      “Heroin at your corner store.” That was the title of a speech that Donald MacPherson delivered before a full house at SFU’s Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue last night (October 10).

      He began by recounting the origins of that phrase.

      It was the late 1990s and overdose deaths across B.C. had risen steadily for years, from 80 in 1990 to 400 in 1998.

      MacPherson—who delivered his speech in acceptance of the 2017 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy—recalled that at the time, he was director of the Carnegie Community Centre. From that vantage point at the corner of Main Street and East Hastings, he had watched the drug problem spiral out of control.

      Looking for possible solutions, MacPherson began to argue that drugs should be legalized. If supplies of cocaine and heroin were regulated by the government, he came to believe, users wouldn’t be caught off guard by unknown potencies and poisonous contaminates. As a result, there would be fewer overdose deaths.

      “Oh, god, you want to legalize drugs?” MacPherson recalled skeptics asking him. “What do you want? Heroin in 7/11s?”

      The idea of such a dangerous substance so readily available terrified people.

      “Then, one day, out of the blue, Bud [Osborn] phones me up,” MacPherson continued. The Downtown Eastside poet and activist had recently co-founded a group called the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and he and MacPherson realized they were fighting for the same side.

      “Donald, I think the 7/11 model would be better than what we’ve got,” Osborn told him. “At least someone would have to talk to someone who wasn’t a drug dealer to get their heroin. And they’d be buying heroin, not something else.”

      MacPherson was hired by then-mayor Philip Owen as the City of Vancouver’s first drug-policy coordinator. In 2001, he authored a landmark policy document that transformed how Vancouver responds to challenges of drugs and addiction. Called A Framework for Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver, it said that harm reduction should stand alongside prevention, treatment, and enforcement. That if people were going to use drugs, a local government should help them do that in as safe a manner as possible.

      North America’s first sanctioned supervised-injection facility, Insite, opened two years later, in 2003. The Four Pillars also emphasized that health authorities should provide services where marginalized people are at, making programs accessible to drug users with as few barriers as possible.

      By 2007, illicit-drug overdose deaths across B.C. were down to 202, almost half the 400 deaths there were in 1998, when B.C.’s first overdose crisis hit its peak.

      Ten years later, the number of illicit-drug overdose deaths has skyrocketed to a projected 1,500 in 2017.

      “This is not a failure of our treatment systems,” MacPherson said at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue. “It is not a failure of the mental-health system, it is not a failure of prescribing practices. It is a catastrophic failure of our drug policies, of our drug-control policies.”

      MacPherson acknowledged that bringing an end to the war on drugs would be a serious endeavour. But he argued that to truly respond to addiction as a health issue, ending the drug war is what’s required.

      “People say, ‘What are you going to do? Surrender?’” MacPherson continued. “Yes. Surrender! For god’s sake, give that up and start doing something that is actually going to work.”

      In Canada, drug laws are a federal issue. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said the Liberal government will not discuss legalizing or even decriminalizing hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. But MacPherson argued that to an extent, regional governments can take steps without waiting for Ottawa.

      “We need to immediately decriminalize possession for personal use. That can be done by instructing the police not to bother anyone for personal possession,” MacPherson explained. “I’m hoping the provincial authorities can look into that.”

      B.C.’s new minister of mental health and addictions, Judy Darcy, was sitting just a few feet from MacPherson. As he made that suggestion, he looked in her direction.

      It's not as radical a suggestion as some people might think. For years, the Vancouver Police Department has generally refrained from arresting people for possessing marijuana. Successive chiefs have stated publicly that the plant is simply not policing priority.

      MacPherson merely suggested the VPD and other local law-enforcement agencies could do the same with other drugs.

      The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy comes with $5,000, which its 2017 recipient, Donald MacPherson, said he's donating to drug-user groups based in Vancouver.

      While that sort of step toward decriminalization—removing criminal penalties for possession—would be a positive one, MacPherson cautioned it should not be mistaken for a solution. He said the goal should be full legalization, were the government brings the distribution of drugs under its control and regulates supply. That would ensure substances sold as heroin and cocaine are free of poisonous adulterants such as fentanyl and carfentanil.

      “We need to replace the drug supply through public-health distribution mechanisms,” MacPherson maintained.

      According to the B.C. Coroners Service, during the first seven months of 2017, more than 80 percent of fatal overdoses involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s significantly more dangerous than heroin. The province’s drug supply is hopelessly polluted.

      “If it was food, we would truck in food, if it was water, we would truck in water,” MacPherson said. “We have the drugs. They are in cabinets in pharmacies, in hospitals. We have the drugs, [but] we’re not trucking them anywhere.”

      Travis Lupick is a staff reporter and the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.