Vancouver drug advocates barred from symposium on addictions treatment amid protest concerns 

Drug user advocates say they weren't allowed into a conference on addictions treatment and recovery Thursday. The conference was moved from Vancouver to Richmond after the advocates' protest plans were leaked to event organizers.

A planned protest by drug user advocates forced a conference on drug policy and addictions treatment to relocate from downtown Vancouver to Richmond Thursday.

The Policy Roundtable on Substance Prevention, Education and Recovery (PROSPER) Symposium was set to be held at the Sheraton Wall Centre on Burrard Street, but it was moved to the Westin Wall Centre in Richmond after organizers became aware of protests led by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

Speakers at the Symposium included Kevin Sabet, a three-time White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor, as well as B.C. politicians like John Rustad, Kevin Falcon and Brad West. 

VANDU was joined by other advocacy groups including Moms Stop the Harm, and Pivot Legal Society. Excerpts of a group chat and audio recordings were published by National Post columnist Adam Zivo — they show protesters discussing methods to disrupt the symposium. 

Those tactics included pouring red dye into hotel fountains, suggestions of spraying attendees with fire extinguishers, yelling during presentations, and filming attendees.  

Zivo spoke about the protest on Now You Know with Rob Snow Thursday, saying the groups were trying to intimidate the speakers.

“This symposium is focused on recovery oriented approaches to the addiction crisis. How do we ensure that people get better rather than simply enabling their drug abuse?” Zivo said. “What the [activists] decided to do was organize to shut down this event. Over the course of two large Zoom meetings tried to figure out ways to disrupt, intimidate, and discredit the event and its attendees.”

But the advocates say that’s not what they planned to do. 

Leslie McBain with Moms Stop the Harm says she attempted to go to the conference in Richmond with a few other members of her group, but they weren’t allowed inside.

“We couldn’t believe it. We wanted to ask questions. We wanted to hear what they had to say. It was kind of disturbing and frightening, and also quite ridiculous. The moms are a fairly peaceful bunch — we certainly have a goal, to save the lives of people who use drugs — and we were treated like terrorists or people who were going to do damage to their symposium.”

McBain says she and the other moms wanted to understand what the goals of the speakers were and how their policies would help support people who use drugs.

“How does this help people stop dying seven-a-day here in B.C.? Is there any way that you are going to address this — that’s what I would have asked them,” she told CityNews. “There wasn’t a question period on the agenda, but we thought we could ask the questions somewhere, somehow. That made us — in their eyes — dangerous and disruptive.”  

In a statement to CityNews, PROSPER Canada says everyone who was deregistered from the event was explicitly named in the audio recording led by VANDU detailing their protest plans.

“These are not good faith attendees, and they would compromise the safety and security of our attendees. As a result, they were politely removed with the commitment of a full refund. Once the dust settles, we invite them to a productive, peaceful dialogue as we have already communicated to them,” PROSPER said.

PROSPER Canada confirmed that McBain and the other representatives from Moms Stop the Harm were named in that recording. 

VANDU, Moms Stop the Harm and Pivot Legal Society went ahead with a brief protest in the courtyard outside the Sheraton Wall Centre Thursday afternoon. The event was attended by a few dozen protesters, the Vancouver Police Department as well as security officials from the Wall Centre.

Leader of the Opposition Kevin Falcon tells CityNews he can’t blame the organizers for blocking them.

“I’m sure if they had a record of showing up at events and showing up and asking reasonable questions and trying to challenge assumptions, that would be a good thing, and I think most organizations would welcome that,” Falcon said.

“But unfortunately, it would appear there’s a history, and given the information in the recordings that reporters got hold of, it suggests they were actually going to be disruptive, and that’s too bad.”

Disagreements over policy at the heart of protest action

Aaron Bailey, program coordinator at the Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education at VANDU says he and other advocates profoundly disagree with the ideas discussed at the PROSPER Symposium.

“The folks that are convening at this conference are representatives of the electoral right-wing in British Columbia, and representatives of the privatized, unregulated recovery industry across Canada and the United States,” he said.

“The perspective that is being promoted at this conference is that the recovery industry should not be held to any standard, it should be entirely privatized, and it should pursue its abstinence oriented agenda against the evidence. That is what we oppose. We want folks to be alive to get to the kind of recovery program that works for them. That’s not profitable for the representatives at this conference.”

PROSPER Canada disagrees with that characterization, saying the symposium is a “thoughtful, expert-led dialogue promoting evidence-based strategies to prevent and treat addiction”.

On its website, PROSPER says Canada is in an addictions crisis. The group argues that safe supply and drug decriminalization programs cause more harm than approaches that focus specifically on recovery and prevention. 

PROSPER says its vision is to “create a culture of prevention and a climate of recovery” that’s based on non-partisan evidence and policy advice on drug use. 

The latest statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service show at least 572 people died of toxic drugs in the first three months of 2024. The Coroners Service says 6.2 people die every day from toxic drugs in this province — with drug toxicity being the leading cause of death among British Columbians between the ages of 10 and 59.

The Coroners Service says fentanyl has been detected in 85 per cent of unregulated drug deaths. 

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