The Biennial International Drug Policy Conference #ReformConf15 hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) closed last Saturday. The four-day event is the largest of its kind in the world. This year it attracted more people than ever before. Over 1400 people from 74 countries convened in Arlington, Virginia just a few miles from Capitol Hill.

It was a fascinating affair.

On Day 1, the tenor of the opening plenary session was electrifying, to this first time British delegate.

The firebrand founder of the DPA Ethan Nadelmann set the tone with a tour de force keynote on the opening morning. It then took on the fervour of a revivalist meeting as one after another a procession of impassioned speakers — mostly of colour and female — took to the platform to extemporise on the human cost of the failed forty year so-called war on drugs.

Things calm down after this opening volley as smaller wonkish seminars fill the remainder of the programme.

For all its claims to be ‘international’ the cultural context of this event is emphatically American with issues of race inequity and incarceration lurking in every address and session. There was a mainly white libertarian fringe at the event but it was operating in the margins — even the Republican’s were there.

For anyone thinking about drug reform in the UK this can all appear somewhat alienating. It is possible to admire the fervour of the American campaigners but struggle to imagine how the same arguments can be replicated in the British situational context.

On Day 2 I wandered over to the little Canadian Drug Policy Coalition stall managed by Donald MacPherson.

I was keen to find out more the provenance of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new Prime Minister’s cannabis legalisation plans and the conference programme wasn’t really helping me. Just last month Trudeau won their General Election with a manifesto commitment to legalise cannabis. This is the first time that a national leader has won a General Election anywhere in the world with such a commitment. On the eve of Reform conference the Canadian Attorney-General in Ottawa mandated the implementation of the policy.

In the context of drug reform this is the biggest story in the world. I was keen to know more about how it happened. Figuring MacPherson could help me I suggested we sit down for a coffee and we did.

Donald MacPherson at the International Drug Policy Conference 2015 in Washington

Our founder Paul Birch with Donald MacPherson at the International Drug Policy Conference 2015 in Washington

This is MacPherson’s story and it is also the story of Canada’s coming to terms with its drug problem in a very Canadian way.

If there is ever a movie made about MacPherson’s life then I heartily recommend they cast Bill Nighy as the lead.

MacPherson was born and raised in Toronto and started his life working in Adult Education in his home city. In 1986 he headed out west to Vancouver to take on a community organiser role at the junction of Main and Hastings in the city’s rundown Downtown Eastside district. Although renowned as an area associated with welfare-funded dwellings and prostitution it had up until 1989 a containable drug problem.

Ajith Rajeswari Vancouver Donald MacPherson

Vancouver, Canada (Source: commons.wikimedia.org – Ajith Rajeswari)

In 1989 all this changed. Heroin trading took a iron grip on the area. Almost overnight, according to MacPherson, Downtown Eastside became a magnet for heroin and crack cocaine barons. They took over the shops and hotels and burned out local community centres. Their colonisation of the MacPherson’s community beat happened way too quickly for the authorities who were at a loss at what to do. MacPherson realised that his project was fast becoming an oasis; he felt ‘like I was in Bosnia and where the hell is the Red Cross?’

Something had to give.

By the mid-1990s MacPherson realised that his time as an effective organiser in such a situation had come to and end. The drug barons reign was crowding out what little was left of Downtown Eastside’s community cohesion. He started to look abroad for solutions. He approached City Hall requesting a sabbatical to allow him to seek out a solution to the mayhem that was leading to over 200 overdose deaths a year in the city. They agreed and he self financed a study trip to Germany and Switzerland in search of a workable solution.

He spent time in Frankfurt and Hamburg but it was in Geneva that MacPherson found a plan that he believed might just work back home. He returned to Vancouver with a coherent plan he was sure he could finesse but without any confidence that he could find the ‘man in a pinstripe suit’ who would be convinced by it. He need not have worried.

Enter Phillip Owen who MacPherson describes as the ‘improbable hero’ of this story.

Philipp Owen: a politician who gave a shit.

Owen was first elected Mayor of Vancouver in 1993 — he would go on to become the longest serving holder of the office. Nothing in his record suggested that he was would use any of his political capital on radical drug reform but when he first read The Four Pillars, MacPherson’s authored plan he loved it. It was like an epiphany for him. MacPherson needed someone in pin stripe to believe in his plan and he had his man.

The Four Pillars, MacPherson freely admits, didn’t take much writing. He adopted the Geneva model, tinkered with it, and gave it a new title; a branded solution if you like. The focus was on prevention, enforcement, treatment and harm reduction.

What shocked MacPherson was how ebulliently the temperamentally conservative Mayor reacted to his proposal. Stepping way beyond his jurisdiction he championed the plan in the media, right across the city in public meetings and on the streets where besuited he engaged with addicts on Main and Hastings. He took public opinion seriously. Months later, having campaigned ceaselessly, he ran a series of polls. 85% of Vancouver citizens gave him their approval. He had the numbers; he could finally ‘take it [The Four Pillars] to the bank’.

Owen constructed a big tent of eclectic advocates. Prominent amongst them was Bud Osborne, (an American crusading poet and the activist), Dean Wilson (who the novelist Michael Ondaatje told me was “Canada’s most famous junkie”), and Donald MacPherson.

Formidably aligned and fiercely committed The Four Pillars was approved in 2001. Two years later — under a new Mayor Larry Campbell a flamboyant former Mountie and coroner — Insite opened as North America’s first safe injection centre and a totem to North America’s most bold progressive drug reform project.

The Four Pillars was to be Phillip Owen’s great legacy. McPherson became his drugs czar and cities and drug reformers from across the world had a new beacon of post-prohibition.

In 2008 after 22 years of service to his city MacPherson stepped down to lead the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and lead the national reform movement. During the moribund days of the Harper government he spent his time with opposition parties briefing them, constructing arguments and ensuring that notwithstanding Harper’s hardline stance drug reform remained part of the national conversation.

Last month his life’s work came to fruition. Justin Trudeau committed to legalising cannabis two years ago and maintained his commitment to it going into the General Election.

Little could McPherson have known, when he embarked — almost thirty years ago — on his journey from Toronto to Vancouver to take up a new job — that he would one day become a pioneer of the biggest story yet in the history of drug reform.

What advice did he have for the thousands of campaigners out there in the world right now?

His response was simple.

‘you always need to find a man in a pinstripe suit’

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