Never Underestimate the Power of Air Miles in the Hands of an Accidental Activist

Particularly if that person is Donald MacPherson.

In the late 1990’s a neighbourhood in Vancouver was known as the Killing Fields because of its high overdose death rate (nearly 200 in 1998 alone.)

Starting today (April 19th, 2016) the UN General Assembly (UNGASS) is convening a landmark session to kickstart a global rethink on the war on drugs.

There is a warm line between Donald and this remarkable turn of events.

But first, use your wildest imagination to calculate the seismic mind shifts that accompanied this decision. Getting the US to face up to the need to start having a conversation must have been a feat in itself.

Perhaps the most compelling testimonies for change come from the ‘drug-war-weary’ leaders of Latin America. The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos wrote recently that it is a war, “that on most counts shows little progress if contrasted with the amount of time, blood and treasure invested by so many nations with a view to dismantling a business that remains as strong and active as it was a half a century ago.”

Now back to Donald who self-deprecatingly calls himself an accidental activist because he was teaching literacy in the midst of Vancouver’s crisis of conscience.

I shared a little of his story in Impact. How all known solutions to drug dependency (enforcement, prevention, treatment, education) had lost their swagger in Vancouver. How Donald turned both his and the city’s collective despair into ingenuity. How he used his sister’s air miles to fly to Zurich to check out that city’s safe injection site because his boss would not pay for the flight. How he wrangled his way into Mayor Phillip Owen’s office when he returned. How Mayor Owen became a crusader for harm reduction vowing to stop victimizing the victim. Owen acknowledged that drug use and addiction is primarily a health, social and human rights issue rather than a criminal justice issue. He also became the champion for what remained until recently the only legal safe injection site in North America.

Fast forward a number of years to a rainy Vancouver Saturday when Donald met Adam Kahane. Adam is one of the world’s best when you are confronting the toughest of tough challenges. He had just been retained by the Organization of American States to develop alternate scenarios to the war on drugs. I was in the room when Adam recruited Donald onto his advisory committee. The rest is history in the making. The OAS’s recommendations to rethink drug policy are on the table at this special UN General Assembly. One of the report’s core pillars is to frame drug policy within the context of human rights and to stop victimizing the victims of drug abuse.


Donald went on to form the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) launching a national conversation about the future of drug policy. That’s the equivalent of wandering in the wilderness these past ten years in Canada. Thankfully he and his team persisted. A few weeks ago Donald received an invitation from the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health to be an official member of the Canadian delegation. This time his way is being paid.

Please consider a donation to CDPC’s work.

More Reading:

What is UNGASS 2016? courtesy Open Society Foundation

Vancouver’s People First Approach to Drug Issues courtesy Open Society Foundation


we have become a community of prophets in

the downtown eastside

rebuking the system

and speaking hope and possibility into situations

of apparent impossibility.

     – Bud Osborn

this post’s musical gem also originated in Vancouver in the 1990’s,  Save This House by Spirit of the West.


Recipe for ‘Unlaunches’ and Other Unlikely Gatherings

Imagine a Country Where No One is Poor

Transformation Starts with a Resurrection of the Ordinary

Fear and Loathing and Social Change

A Robust Society is a Feminist Society

 Share with others

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>