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City’s drug-policy chief heading out

September 6th, 2009 · 46 Comments

Word will be coming out next week that Vancouver’s drug-policy co-ordinator — the only job with that title in any Canadian city — is going to be leaving.

Donald MacPherson, a former Carnegie Centre manager who got interested in drug policy as a result of watching people overdose and die on his front steps, was named as a drug guy in 2001 by then-mayor Philip Owen, who made the Downtown Eastside drug issue his main initiative in the later years of his administration. It was MacPherson who came up with the name and idea of the “four pillars” strategy — prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction — that became identified with Vancouver and who worked with Owen on the controversial harm-reduction piece of it that led to Vancouver’s only supervised-injection site.

For his efforts, MacPherson got regularly vilified by anti-harm reduction types but also won awards (see Globe reporter Andre Picard’s story from this past March on one of them) and got requests from around the world to come and speak about drug policy.

MacPherson says he’s not leaving because of anything to do with current administration (though I can’t help noting that drug policy and harm reduction have somewhat fallen off the radar with the new crew), but that he wants to move on to working on drug policy at a national level. But there’s nothing definitive yet. However, he’ll get to ponder his new life in attractive settings. MacPherson’s wife, noted artist and Emily Carr instructor Landon Mackenzie, has won the Canada Council gig in Paris for this fall, which provides her with a small studio and stipend to go make art along the Seine.

City manager Penny Ballem, who worked with MacPherson back in the early 2000s on the harm-reduction stuff where she was a strong advocate for what the city was trying to do, said she’s sorry to see him go. On the other hand, she said, she can understand why people want to move on, especially when they’ve been working on an area like his.

“When he first started, there were so many stars aligned,” said Ballem, referring to the way the then federal Liberals, the provincial government, and the city were all pulling in the same direction on drug policy — a stark change from now, especially at the federal level. “That’s when you have a run that you remember, but that can’t last forever.” Ballem said it will be great to have MacPherson working with the city potentially as someone lobbying from the outside.

As for what’s going to happen to his position, that still has to be talked about with community-services group manager Dave McLellan, but Ballem said she’d like to see it mesh with the mental-health work the city is also trying to do. It was Ballem who forced health regions to combine mental-health and addictions efforts when she was at the ministry, because of what she could see were the obvious overlaps. Now, she says, it’s clear that whatever work the city does on addictions also has to address the mental-health component of that, since 60 per cent of addicts also have a mental-health problem.

“We can’t afford any more to isolate drug policy,” she told me Saturday, the day after MacPherson tendered his resignation effective Oct. 2. “I said to Donald, ‘You’ve left a huge legacy. Now we’re poised to take the next step.’ We need to build on the platform he’s created.”

MacPherson is the latest in a long list of city employees who have gone off to greener pastures or retired or just plain left in the last four years, as a combination of baby-boomer retirements, fedupness with the various agendas of various brand-setting administrations, and shifting priorities at the city have taken their toll.

BTW, MacPherson, a PEI native who started off his professional life working in literacy, is an excellent fiddle player if anyone is looking for same.

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