In a wide-ranging interview with the Vancouver Sun last Friday, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan said he wants to begin a program to provide drugs for addicts in the city's Downtown Eastside -- and he's willing to risk his political career to do so. Sullivan said he was moved to propose the idea in an effort to protect women drug users who turn to prostitution and to reduce crime and disorder before the city hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Vancouver's Downtown Eastside drug scene is one of the continent's most open and busy, with thousands of hard-core drug users concentrated in a few square blocks just blocks from the heart of the city. While a few dozen heroin addicts are receiving maintenance doses as part of the experimental North American Opiate Maintenance Initiative, any broader program would require federal and provincial government approval.
"I'll do whatever I can to get to a situation where we've done something important for these women," Sullivan said. Vancouver also needs to put a fresh face on for the Olympics, he said. "By 2010, I want the public disorder and crime seriously reduced."
Sullivan told the Sun he has been consulting with experts and community groups about ways to begin a drug maintenance program and that a private donor has offered $500,000 for innovative harm reduction programs in Vancouver. The city would not be involved in funding or operating the program, he said.
"I want any project [that does go forward] to be not dreamed up by the mayor or any citizen that doesn't have a lot of expertise," Sullivan said. "The reality is that the city is not going to conduct any program that is health-related."
In remarks that drew a rebuke from former Mayor Larry Campbell, a strong proponent of the city's Four Pillars drug policy strategy (prevention, treatment, law enforcement, and harm reduction), Sullivan said it was time to emphasize the latter. "I believe where we haven't put real energy is in the more interesting harm-reduction efforts that have proven to work," he said.
Sullivan expressed less enthusiasm about the law enforcement and treatment pillars. "I would say I have seen enforcement well funded. At least three times during my time on council, we have sent the police in to clean up for once and for all," he said. As for treatment, Sullivan remained unconvinced of its efficacy. "I've looked at mandatory treatment in the United States and still seen open drug use there." He supported prevention and treatment, "but I think we have to be honest with ourselves that that is not going to solve the problem," Sullivan said.
Campbell, the pro-legalization retired mayor whose Council of Progressive Electors (COPE) electoral coalition lost out to Sullivan and the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) in last year's municipal elections, attacked Sullivan as simplistic and reckless. "The idea that all you need to do is give drugs [to people] and that takes care of the problem doesn't make any sense to me," Campbell told the Sun. "It's very simplistic." Nor was he impressed with Sullivan's comments on the Four Pillars. "His idea that one pillar is tremendously more important than the others flies in the face of everything we've learned," Campbell said.
Sullivan's remarks also got mixed reviews from the city council, where Vision Vancouver councilors, the main opposition to the NPA, called the mayor's views "extreme" and said drug maintenance should be "a last resort" after other forms of treatment failed.
But at least one NPA councilor, Suzanne Anton, and David Cadman, the lone COPE councilor, both told the Sun they supported the mayor. "As a society that is suffering as a result of drug use... we have to look for more creative solutions," said Cadman.