Is the Four Pillars Coalition now only standing on one leg?
Today we’re featuring a CityCaucus Redux post we first ran in September 2009. It was becoming abundantly clear back then that Mayor Gregor and his Vision Vancouver caucus were slowly backing away from the award winning Four Pillars drug strategy. The initiative had been championed by three previous administrations.
Since this story was first published, Donald Macpherson, the head of the City’s drug policy branch, has quit his job and the initiative continues to languish. I thought this might make for an interesting read given the fact Mayor Gregor has just fired off a letter to the federal government outlining his support of Vancouver’s supervised injection site. The letter was co-signed by former Mayors Sam Sullivan, Larry Campbell, Philip Owen, Michael Harcourt and Art Philips. It’s interesting how Robertson has been virtually silent on this issue for 2 1/2 years, but on the eve of a civic election, he is finally speaking up for this program.
It all started with Mayor Philip Owen. Then it was reinforced by Mayor Larry Campbell. It basically ended with Mayor Sam Sullivan. What are we talking about? None other than the much vaunted Four Pillars Coalition (FPC), an organization that for almost a decade has advocated for a balanced and innovative approach in the battle against the impacts of drug addiction.
Since the election last November, there has hardly been a mention of the FPC. Unlike his predecessors, Mayor Gregor Robertson has made it clear that he is more interested in making Vancouver the greenest city on the planet, rather than trying to advocate for innovative ideas to solve the open drug problem facing Vancouver’s neighbourhoods.
Unlike Owen, Campbell and Sullivan, who all made drug policy reform a big part of their mission, this Mayor has been virtually silent on the issue. The work of keeping the FPC alive has rested mainly with Donald Macpherson, the ever-likable public servant who heads up the City’s drug policy branch.
Is it simply that Mayor Robertson doesn’t see this as his issue? Or is it that he realizes he only has about 30 months left in this term to accomplish something on the green file and that’s where he is going to focus his energy?
Regardless, one thing is clear with His Worship, the days of talking up harm reduction are all but over. Take for example the most recent FPC meeting that took place in March. The focus was the prevention pillar. On June 24th, the FPC is scheduled to meet and I have it under good authority that once again the topic will be prevention. Here is an excerpt of Mayor Robertson’s address to the FPC back in March:
With the current array of challenges we face from homeless to addictions in our streets to the incredible unsettling gang war, the times are demanding change. They are demanding new approaches and certainly prevention and education are at the core of what needs to be our new approach. What I’m hearing now is that we need a new culture of prevention…
Since when did prevention and education become a "new approach" when it comes to battling drug addiction? Who is the mayor kidding? Firstly, these two pillars have been part of the FPC mandate from day one. Secondly, there are no shortage of provincial and federal government programs that preach prevention as the main line of attack in helping to get addicts off of our streets.
What follows in the Mayor’s speech about prevention appears almost unintelligible:
Prevention is a lot more than just dealing with drugs or focusing on the drug end of the spectrum. Prevention requires that all of us partner. Work together. Collaborate. It still means leadership though. It doesn’t mean that by all working together and turning inward into a circle to work on problems that we don’t drive forward and lead.
I think it requires that combination of partnering but setting direction and trying new things and new approaches and leading. There are people here who have done great work in the city on prevention. Often times it has been in isolation. There are lots of stories told of incredible efforts that have been made, in particular in the Downtown Eastside. But so many of them are siloed so many are individual or smaller group efforts and they are not adding up to greater than the sum of their parts.
We need to see more collaboration. We need to see more funding assistance from different levels of government. We need to see more knowledge transfer and capacity building to get more of the sum of these parts.
Huh? Can someone explain what he just said? More "capacity building" and more "knowledge transfer"? Did the Mayor just come back from a buzz word convention in Vegas?
What the previous three mayors understood was the fact it was a lot harder to sell harm reduction (aka supervised injection site) or innovative treatment such as the NAOMI pilots to senior levels of government.
Collectively, these mayors used up a tremendous amount of their political capital trying to convince senior levels of government the "just say no" approach wouldn’t cut it, and that innovative solutions to Vancouver’s drug problem were desperately needed if we were going to save lives and cut healthcare costs.
Owen and Campbell convinced senior levels of government to fund a supervised injection site while Sullivan convinced the Conservative government to fund SALOME, a pilot program to treat drug addicts with legal substitute medications. Both were a difficult sell.
Robertson’s focus (as little as there has been on this issue so far) seems to be squarely on the prevention pillar. By doing so, he doesn’t run the risk of offending some folks who continue to believe the only answer to solving drug addiction is opening up more treatment beds or hiring more police. This is a stark departure from his predecessors, and as a result, he will likely gain votes for it.
Just take a look at the Province newspaper’s articles last week in which they triggered a debate about whether drug addicts should be forced into treatment or rehabilitation programs. You can see from some of the reaction from Province readers that this lock-em-up throw away the key approach to drug addiction has all too many supporters.
If these types of articles would have been written under former Mayor Larry Campbell’s watch, you can bet he would have been the first person to have spoken out. Robertson remains silent, yet again.
The Mayor still has plenty of time to demonstrate that he has a genuine interest in the drug policy file, and that he’s not simply going along for the ride. He should be actively supporting the SALOME trials that are about to get underway in Vancouver. SALOME will provide a select group of drug addicts who have failed traditional treatment or rehabilitation programs (something that is not uncommon by the way) with legal medications as a treatment to eventually get them off drugs entirely.
For the sake of all the lost souls in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and beyond, let’s hope that Robertson places just a bit more emphasis on solving the drug problems plaguing our streets over the remaining 30 months of his administration.