In The Tyee, my colleague Geoff Dembicki writes: How Vancouver’s Next Mayor Can Help End the Opioid Crisis. Excerpt:
Five years after fentanyl came to British Columbia, the opioid epidemic keeps getting worse. Numbers released in August by the B.C. Coroners Service established a grim new record. In March 2018, 162 people died of fatal drug overdoses across the province, the deadliest month yet recorded. Vancouver has been hit particularly hard. In one week alone earlier this June, 11 people died of drug overdoses. “Last week’s death count is simply ghastly.... Tragically, this marks Vancouver’s worst week for overdose deaths so far this year,” outgoing Mayor Gregor Roberston said after the report’s release.
The opioid epidemic has not been a major issue in a civic election focused almost exclusively on housing. Yet two left-leaning candidates vying to replace Robertson on Oct. 20 have made it increasingly central to their election campaigns. At a recent debate, independent candidate and former NDP MP Kennedy Stewart said “we had a mass murder [with opioids] and we don’t talk about this.” He’s promised to create an emergency task force on overdoses. His main progressive competitor for mayor, independent candidate Shauna Sylvester, notes “we are in the midst of an opioid poisoning crisis.” And she’s said, “I do support the decriminalization of drug possession.”
The three leading right-wing candidates support less ambitious policies than full-on decriminalization. Yes Vancouver’s Hector Bremner is pushing “no barrier housing” as one potential solution. The NPA’s Ken Sim recently called for a review of Downtown Eastside services. Coalition Vancouver’s Wai Young wants a new drug policy co-ordinator, a position that was eliminated by Vision Vancouver.
Over the past week I reached out to three experts on the frontlines of the crisis to understand why fatal drug overdoses remain so high, and what Vancouver’s next mayor could do immediately to lower them. These experts told me that of all the candidates campaigning for mayor, Stewart and Sylvester seem to have the most developed policies on drug overdoses.
Yet they argued even these two candidates’ platforms may fall short of what’s needed to address the crisis: an unequivocal commitment to decriminalizing hard drugs and concrete steps for achieving it.