British Columbia

Vancouver councillor calls for review of city's drug strategy

NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova wants a review of Vancouver's Four Pillars Drug Strategy — prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement — to see how it could better address the current opioid crisis.

Melissa De Genova says some of the Four Pillars strategy is being neglected

The Overdose Prevention Society on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside offers a space for people to use drugs under supervision. Safe consumption sites are a component of the harm-reduction pillar of the city's Four Pillars Drug Strategy. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

As the opioid crisis continues to be a public health emergency in British Columbia, a Vancouver city councillor says she wants to make sure the city's drug strategy is working to its full potential.

Non-Partisan Association (NPA) Coun. Melissa De Genova is putting a motion before council this week asking for a comprehensive review of the city's Four Pillars Drug Strategy. The motion also calls for more resources to tackle drug issues, which De Genova says should pay for a full-time staff member dedicated to drug strategy. 

The Four Pillars strategy, which is based on the principles of harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement, was first implemented in Vancouver in the late 1990s. De Genova said she supports the strategy, but worries some pillars are being underutilized. 

'What are we doing for prevention, what are we doing for treatment?" said De Genova in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition on Monday.

De Genova said the city is asking the provincial and federal government for help but it could do more itself, such as making land available for treatment centres.

"I think it's important if we are going to ask other levels of government for money that we make sure that we are showing that we are invested in this as well," she said.

De Genova said a safe drug supply is also critical to reduce illicit drug deaths. 

Lessons from Portugal

De Genova is asking city staff to investigate what has proven to be successful in Portugal, which has one of the lowest drug addiction rates in Europe.

The country decriminalized simple possession in 2001 and anyone holding a 10-day-or-less supply of personal use drugs does not face legal penalty.

De Genova said decriminalization would fall under the enforcement pillar of the city's strategy and allow authorities to focus their resources on organized crime operations and large-scale traffickers, rather than drug users. 

The city has been calling on the federal government to immediately decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs since spring 2018.

Pillars 'never really implemented'

The Four Pillars Strategy was prompted by a heroin crisis in Vancouver in the 1990s that caused hundreds of people to overdose.

City council approved the 85-page document, A Framework for Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver, in April 2001. It included almost 40 recommendations on how to tackle drug issues in the city and marked a shift toward categorizing addiction more as a health problem than a criminal issue.

Those recommendations led to the opening of Insite in 2003, the first supervised consumption site in North America.

Donald MacPherson, author of the framework and current director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, told CBC's The Early Edition in August the strategy was "never really implemented" and addicts are not getting the help they need.

"We keep propping up this failed drug policy that we have in Canada that continues to criminalize vulnerable people, push them into the shadows and make them the target of the problem," said MacPherson.

Increase resources

In her motion to council, De Genova is asking the city "to organize staff and resources to increase the capacity of Arts, Culture and Community Service to research new drug policy to further achieve the goals of the Four Pillars Drug Strategy."

"It is my understanding that we only have one drug policy staff member that is dedicated to drug policy, who also has a number of other files," said De Genova, who would like to see another staff member put on the payroll. 

MacPherson wrote A Four Pillar Approach while he held the position of city drug policy coordinator — a role that no longer exists.

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had the highest number of illicit drug deaths in B.C. between January and August, with 208 deaths out of 690 province-wide. The City of Vancouver's website says the overdose death rate in the city has increased every year since 2014.

De Genova will present her motion to council on Oct. 22. 

To hear the complete interview with Melissa De Genova, tap the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition