‘Drug users are everywhere, people die everywhere,’ advocate says amid debate around Richmond supervised consumption site

Interventions and supports to keep people who consume illicit drugs alive are needed everywhere, especially cities and neighbourhoods right across the Lower Mainland, one drug user advocate said after chaotic scenes at Richmond city council Monday night.

Garth Mullins, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) member and Crackdown Podcast host, explained that while many think that harm reduction sites, like the proposed safe consumption site in Richmond, are just needed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, that kind of thinking is missing a large part of the community.

“Drug users are everywhere,” he told CityNews Tuesday. “People die everywhere in this province, so we need interventions everywhere.”

“The coroner sends out hearses to pick up bodies from houses all over this city and all over the province. We need those services wherever these people are,” he continued.

Mullins’ comments come after tensions boiled over at a city council meeting that was considering a motion to open a drug consumption site in Richmond. Hundreds of people gathered outside, with dozens filling council chambers as some shouted and even cried while venting frustrations and fears. Many expressed a strong belief that a supervised consumption site would have a negative impact on their neighbourhoods.

But Mullins explained that the thinking by many that a site will increase the number of illicit drug users in the city is flawed.

“There’s already plenty of drug users in Richmond, there’s already plenty of drug users in the neighbourhood — making programs and protective measures for them isn’t going to introduce something new,” he explained.

Mullins points to research that shows illicit drug users don’t tend to travel far to access supervised injection sites, saying travel distance is about “400 metres — less than half a kilometre.”

“People aren’t going to be coming from other communities to go to the hospital in Richmond to access the safe injection site,” he said.

He appreciates that residents in and around the city are fearful of a supervised consumption site, but Mullins is laying the creation of that fear on politicians of all levels whipping up panic over the last couple of years.

“That’s what I saw at Richmond last night. A lot of these same politicians have been filling the airwaves with disinformation … and so you’re going to get a lot of people who are not well informed, so that’s really unfortunate.”

The list of about 120 speakers is set to continue Tuesday night before Richmond city council votes on the motion, which only asks staff to explore the benefits and challenges of implementing the site.

Mullins refuted federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s assertion that the unregulated toxic drug supply death crisis is due to safe supply and harm reduction measures.

“It’s just incorrect. It’s backwards,” Mullins said. “But if people are hearing that and thinking, ‘Well, this guy’s the leader of the Opposition, he must have his facts right’ — I can understand why they’re scared, and I can understand why they’re misinformed.”

Mullins noted that Richmond is currently a “dry” city, with limited resources for drug users in the community.

“I think part of the problem is that the people in power … have been using such small, little half measures, pilot projects, and not really taking on bold action on the toxic drug crisis.

“So people just sitting at home hear about these things — harm reduction — and they don’t see the death rates coming down. So they think, ‘Oh, this must not work.’ Or even worse, it must be contributing to the problem,” he explained.

But Mullins said it’s wrong to conflate the two. Out of the more than 2,500 people who were killed by toxic drugs in 2023, only one death was recorded at a supervised consumption site.

“The toxic drug crisis started in some local areas. But the government did nothing, so it allowed it to spread practically everywhere in this country now,” he said.

“So, the longer we wait, the more deeply the toxic drug crisis will penetrate in to the fabric of Canadian society, until there’s not one single family not touched by this tragedy.”

Mullins explained he currently sees a sad future ahead.

“Safe injection sites are a solution from the last overdose crisis in the 1990s. The fact that we’re still having these discussions 20, almost 30 years later, it’s just terrible. Not only are we facing a toxic drug supply, now we’re facing toxic politics.”

Mullins said the rhetoric over harm reduction and saving lives is now so muddled, “We’re also not even able to have a clear conversation about the evidence and solutions.”

‘Take the temperature down,’ premier urges

Speaking at an unrelated news conference Tuesday morning, Premier David Eby said the discussion in Richmond reflects the city’s desire to support people who use illicit drugs and its desire to “ensure livable communities.”

“Those conversations [about a supervised consumption site] are going to take place between Richmond and the health authority, [and] for people to express their views in Richmond respectfully, to have space to disagree,” he said.

“I think it would be beneficial for everybody just to take the temperature down. We all want livable communities. We want people to be safe. That’s our shared goal here.”

With files from Sonia Aslam

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