Downtown Eastside drug users give Canada's new health minister a to-do list for the fentanyl crisis

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Canada’s new health minister made a quiet visit to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) headquarters last Saturday (October 21).

      Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Liberal MP for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, made the stop in the Downtown Eastside while out west for a meeting with provincial counterparts in Edmonton held the day before.

      She was joined by Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, though Taylor did most of the talking.

      The pair met with VANDU president Lorna Bird and a number of long-time members, including Hugh Lampkin and Dave Murray.

      Also in attendance was the president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), Jordan Westfall, Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, and Dr. Kenneth Tupper, a director with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

      Taylor took over Health Canada on August 28 and the meeting served as an introduction to the opioid crisis as it’s playing out in the Downtown Eastside. She listened to VANDU members talk about how a drug addiction has become more dangers since fentanyl arrived.

      At the end of the meeting, VANDU left her with a three-point list of recommendations for the federal government’s response to the opioid crisis.

      The first request asked Health Canada to provide funding for drug-user groups like VANDU.

      “Organized groups of people who use drugs are an irreplaceable resource for developing and implementing effective harm reduction programs and evidence-based drug policy,” the document reads. “A funded national user group would be able to support the development of locally based groups, engage with the federal government and federal agencies, and host a national harm-reduction conference.”

      The second point asks for an expansion of heroin-assisted treatment, which describes an opioid-substitution therapy where long-time addicts receive diacetylmorphine (the medical term for heroin) from the health-care system instead of buying drugs from a dealer.

      “The evidence is in,” it states. “Heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) works and it will save lives. We need to rapidly scale up HAT programs across the country in the context of the massive death toll that the fentanyl crisis is having. We also need stimulant-maintenance programs for people who are addicted to stimulants. These programs are appropriate health care for people who use drugs.”

      (While in the Downtown Eastside, Taylor also visited Crosstown Clinic, home of the only prescription-heroin program in North America.)

      Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) president Lorna Bird and Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), told the country's news health minister about how fentanyl has changed the lives of drug users in the Downtown Eastside.
      Travis Lupick

      The third point calls for the federal government to “end the criminalization of people who use drugs”.

      “Arrests for drug charges are up across the country,” it reads. “We know that busting drug users and low-level dealers only makes their health worse: it destabilizes and disrupts their lives, makes them vulnerable to homelessness and lateral violence, and puts them at increased risk of overdose and disease. As long as the drug-war policies continue, health-based interventions will only be a half measure.”

      Canadian defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan (centre) recently joined the country's health minister on a tour of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside that included stops at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Crosstown Clinic, which hosts North America's only prescription-heroin program
      Travis Lupick

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said the Liberal government will not discuss decriminalizing hard drugs. “We’re not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana,” he told Global News last August.

      B.C. is on track to see more than 1,500 overdose deaths by the end of 2017. That compares to an average of 204 fatal overdoses each year from 2001 to 2010.

      While details on Taylor’s other October 21 appointments in Vancouver—at the Vancouver Convention Centre and B.C. Children’s Hospital, for example—were shared with media, her meetings in the Downtown Eastside happened without journalists in tow.

      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.