Interview: Mayor Kennedy Stewart on the Overdose Crisis

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Mark Hosak
December 08, 2021

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Show: The Current CBC

Segment: The push to save lives by decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs

The interview begins at 47:01

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Transcript below

MG: Hi, I'm Matt Galloway, you're listening to The Current. Across Canada as more people are dying of opioid overdoses, calls for decriminalization are growing louder.

EILEEN DE VILLA: What we're proposing is rather than taking the criminal approach, which actually stigmatises drug users and pushes them, actually forces them into increasingly unsafe behaviour. We're proposing a health focussed approach. This is a health issue and it should be addressed as such.

MG: That was Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, speaking on CBC's Power and Politics. Today, that City's Board of Health will discuss whether to seek federal approval to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. Both the City of Vancouver and the province of B.C. have already asked Health Canada for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act after overdoses spiked during the pandemic. Kennedy Stewart is the mayor of Vancouver. Mayor Stewart, good morning.

KENNEDY STEWART: Hi, Matt, how are you?

MG: I'm well, thanks. You have described the loss of life due to drugs during the pandemic as "another wake up call in a long line of wake up calls". What do you want decision makers to wake up to?

KENNEDY STEWART: Well, they can wake up to what... First of all, what I wake up to every Monday where I have a report from my staff that comes in that says 10 more people died last week and 150 were revived using naloxone or Narcan or whatever you want to call it. That's every week that we're losing 10 people and it's some kind of macabre Groundhog Day every Monday, and these are neighbours there from every walk of life. And in fact, include my own family members, which are really tough as anybody in Vancouver will tell you and our, you know, our city of 700,000 people. That's a lot of folks to die over the last five years since a public health emergency was declared in this area.

MG: How would decriminalization help in that regard?

KENNEDY STEWART: Yeah, there's really three things that need to be done. The first is safe supply, where the poison drugs, and that's the thing, people are injecting substances that they don't know what's in it... And it's... 99 percent of it's laced with fentanyl. So you need to have an alternate supply of safe drugs that are predictable. Decriminalization, though, is really modifying police behaviour. We don't have a lot of arrests for possession here in the city of Vancouver, but what we do have is drug seizures, where police will stop you for shoplifting or something. And if you do have substances on you, they'll remove these and say you're a survival sex trade worker. It forces you into much riskier behaviour that would include what you have to do to get the money to get your new supply of drugs. But also you may go to a dealer with whom you're not, you know, familiar with. And this can also, you know, this can also lead to your death. The... And it also precludes you from testing your drugs because you're scared of getting caught.

MG: The mayor of Toronto, John Tory, has said that he's open to considering the idea of decriminalization. There's a caveat to that. But first, how significant is it that Toronto could add its voice to this call? Vancouver's been out ahead of this, but looking at other cities now, perhaps standing up behind you?

KENNEDY STEWART: Yeah, I think it's because the death toll is spreading across the country. It's been... We've lost 2000 people here in Vancouver, I mean, 2000 people in the city of 700,000. It's unfathomable. And you know, it's important that John and others add their voices. But you know, essentially what's happened is the senior levels of government have just left this to cities. They've brought in dump trucks of naloxone, and turn it over to our firefighters and peer workers and said, 'Hey, keep reviving people until they die'. And that's the strategy to this point.

MG: John Tory has said that he would be open to considering this, but only if better addiction supports are put in place first. Is that a sensible condition?

KENNEDY STEWART: Yeah, sure. Treatment is, you know, there's this kind of... Folks who aren't familiar with this topic will kind of cross our fingers and hope if we get enough treatment beds, everybody would be clean and would go on with normal lives. But that's not going to happen. You might get 10 to 20 percent, perhaps off of drugs, and most will have to maintain their addiction for their entire life. And if they're doing it with poisoned drugs, then they're going to die. So I think we need to have an adult discussion about what's actually happening here, and we have had it just as policymakers. Look, I was an MP for seven years. I mean, that's a very theoretical place where I don't think there's ever been a serious discussion about the massacre that's happening on our streets here.

MG: If your province's application to Health Canada is approved, people 19 and older would be allowed to possess four and a half grams of heroin, fentanyl, crack or powder cocaine and methamphetamine. Garth Mullins, who's with the Vancouver Area Network of drug users, says if the goal is to decriminalize drug use like drug users, you have to look at what drug users actually possess. Why that amount? Why four and a half grams?

KENNEDY STEWART: While that's the provincial application to Health Canada, we have a separate application here at the city of Vancouver that was... it's been sitting in front of the health minister since last July. And I had a great conversation with Carolyn Bennett, the new mental health and addictions minister. So I'm very hopeful something's going to happen. For me, it's always been about getting a Section 56 exemption. I mean, I'm a social scientist by training, so we get this exemption and we bring in the research teams and we monitor the effects that the decrim. is having on people's lives and then modify it as we go forward based on science. That's the difference between our application at the city and the provincial application that ours has the full support of the police. Chief Adam Palmer, who's one of the top police chiefs in the country, has signed on to this, where the provincial application doesn't have the support of police.

MG: Well, how confident are you? I mean, I ask this to a politician, but how confident are you that the science will be followed and that this doesn't get wrapped up in politics because politics runs through this.

KENNEDY STEWART: It's built into our application. So we've applied for funding as well, I mean we built our whole application with the advice of scientists. It's a tricky balance, though you have to balance the health, the community and the police, and we've done that in our application. I'm really proud of it and I just need a signature on it so we can get going. I needed it six months ago, but we need it now and so we can get going. And we can also pilot this for many other cities that are going to be facing their own overdose epidemic if they aren't now.

MG: What does it tell you that this push is being led by a province and a city, or maybe a couple of cities seeking exemptions rather than the federal government?

KENNEDY STEWART: Yeah, I just don't think the folks that are dying for the most case matter that much. And that's the sad bit of it. I really think that, you know, a lot of people are scared of radical change to... that we're going to have to undertake to keep folks alive, to get them to have better lives. And they're just scared of having the conversation. Like I said, seven years in the House of Commons, never heard it once.

MG: But I saw it in a conference room in Thunder Bay with Patty Hajdu, who's the former minister of health. She designed the Thunder Bay drug strategy, and she refused to talk openly about the idea of decriminalization being... And safe supply being the way out of that. She says that this is not a silver bullet, in her words, that there have to be other ways. What do you think politicians are afraid of?

KENNEDY STEWART: Well, first of all, in terms of how many folks decriminalization will save, if I think of the 10 dead people in my city last week, maybe two, maybe peer support and treatment saves another two, but it's safe supply that's going to save the rest, that'll save the six. And so decrim. on its own is not a silver bullet, but maybe it drops my emails from... my Monday morning email from 10 people to eight people, and we just can't talk about it anymore. I know it's trite to say, but we have a way forward in our city and we need the permission to go ahead and do it. And I can't do anything else. All I can do is tell our firefighters to do the best they can with naloxone and tell our peer workers to do the same and then have the coroner pick up the bodies. That's the situation we're in here and increasingly in municipalities right across the country.

MG: Kennedy Stewart, good to speak with you. Thank you very much.