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Debate over harm reduction rages on in Vancouver as opioid crisis continues ahead of B.C. election

Last Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 8:32 am PST

Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — With the news of 127 people dying of drug overdoses in British Columbia in September, provincial election candidates are being pressed on their commitment to ending the drug crisis.

In Vancouver-False Creek, the debate is especially heated, after Vancouver city council approved a permanent overdose prevention site (OPS) in Yaletown on Tuesday, which Liberal MLA candidate Sam Sullivan vehemently opposes.

“It’s primitive,” he says.

“They’re unethical and they don’t make medical sense where pharmaceutical options are available … The supervised injection model is where people go and steal or panhandle aggressively, or prostitute so they can get money,” adds Sullivan.

He says he wants to see a four-pillar model, like that used in Switzerland, put in place in B.C., including access to clean drugs (even more controversial ones like fentanyl, meth and cocaine) and more treatment beds.

However, Sullivan says he cannot speak for his party and acknowledges other Liberal candidates don’t share his views on clean drug supply.

NEWS 1130 asked repeatedly if the Liberals were able to commit to supporting harm-reduction policies put in place, like the increased access to safer drugs, but Sullivan says the team planned on hashing that out as a caucus before the election was called.

“We’re not going to be able to do that in the next three days,” he says.

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Meanwhile, Sullivan is under fire from four Green Party candidates who are accusing the former Vancouver mayor of not understanding the facts when it comes to OPS and harm reduction.

“Overdose prevention sites are not a cause of increased drug use or significant changes in public order in an area, but are installed in areas where drugs are already being used,” they say in a statement.

The Greens point out that some crime has actually dropped in Vancouver as a whole this year, while Maria Dobrinskaya with the Broadbent Institute says Sullivan’s fears over OPS sites are unfounded.

She says while the former BC Liberals took a science-based approach to the drug crisis and harm reduction, she sees the current party heading in a different direction.

“What we’re seeing both from Sam Sullivan but also from the Liberals more broadly is a more punitive approach around criminalizing homelessness ad poverty and drug use when we actually need investments in people,” says Dobrinskaya.

She believes poverty is the root cause of homelessness and a large part of the opioid crisis and says the NDP should be recognized for producing B.C.’s first poverty reduction plan.

“The fact that we have so many people dying on a daily basis clearly highlights not enough is being done. We seem to be stuck, in this province at this point, around decriminalization and the fact it falls under federal jurisdiction, despite the fact that we have clear direction from Dr. Henry around a made-in-B.C. approach,” says Dobrinskaya.

She says Sullivan’s message is likely to appeal to some voters in the Vancouver-False Creek riding who have legitimate concerns about safety and challenges associated with poverty, but says there should be serious questions raised about Sullivan’s association with Safer Vancouver.

“I think he’s clearly wanting to lift up this group,” she says of Safer Vancouver, which advocates describe as exclusionist, NIMBYist and anti-harm reduction.

“I think there should be questions around is it appropriate for a candidate for public office to be endorsing or elevating or amplifying a group that has been unapologetic and really clearly demonizing drug users,” she adds.

Sullivan says he’s working with many community groups and believes the Safer Vancouver group has gone “through a lot of changes in the last month.”

The group’s website says “in the face of escalating crime, together with aggressive and violent behaviour, it has become challenging for many – especially children and seniors – to feel safe and secure. The purpose of the Safer Vancouver Society is to advocate for increased safety in our communities through social, political and judicial channels.”

Election campaign video under fire

Sullivan meanwhile, is still facing criticism from advocates, including Garth Mullins, who accuses Sullivan of quoting him out of context in a campaign video that claimed downtown Vancouver, False Creek specifically, became less safe under the NDP.

Sullivan says he stands by his editorial choices despite the journalist who originally reported the story having come out to confirm the substance of the quote was misrepresented.