People attending an Our Park event

City calls on residents to fight substance-use stigma this International Overdose Awareness Day

The overdose crisis continues to claim the lives of our family, friends, loved ones, and neighbours in every neighbourhood, no matter the income, gender, age, or background. This is not something happening to 'other' people – it's happening to all of us

Mayor Kennedy Stewart

August 30 2021 –

Tomorrow is International Overdose Awareness Day and 2021 is on track to be the deadliest year for overdose deaths since the Province declared a public health emergency in 2016. We mourn the lost loved ones who are victims of the toxic drug supply, and asks everyone in Vancouver to take action to end stigma against people who use substances. 

Stigma is the negative judgment that leads to discrimination against a person or group of people based on a circumstance, action, or trait. Substance-use stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs can prevent people from seeking health care, treatment, or other life-saving supports and services. These are common reasons why people use alone, a leading factor in overdose deaths. In addition, the criminalization of drug use contributes to stigma and furthers the notion that people who use drugs are criminals, rather than understanding drug use as a public health issue.

From January to June 2021, 239 people have lost their lives in Vancouver to the poisoned drug supply, and 1,011 people have lost their lives across the province. This represents a 34% increase province-wide over the number of deaths recorded during the same time in 2020.

The overdose crisis affects people of all ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. However, the overdose crisis disproportionately affects Indigenous community members living and working in the Downtown Eastside. This is due to the ongoing impacts of colonization, including systemic racism and discrimination, which is further exacerbated by intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools, the child welfare Sixties Scoop and other historically racist government policies designed to eliminate Indigenous culture. Indigenous-led initiatives, like the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS), are essential in saving lives during the overdose crisis. 

We are deeply grateful to all Indigenous and other community organizations who are doing meaningful work advocating for drug policy reform and supporting those impacted by overdose, and is committed to investing in these essential supports.

Recent work we've done to reduce stigma and discrimination

"Our Park Project" at Andy Livingstone Park

We collaborated with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), WAHRS, Vancouver Parks and Recreation, cultural and peer support organizations in the Downtown Eastside area, people who use substances and are precariously housed, and local families to create the Our Park Project  at Andy Livingstone Park. 

The project aims to reduce stigma related to substance use by facilitating creative activities that bring together the diverse communities that use Andy Livingstone Park. Elder Les Nelson, Carnegie's first Elder in residence, leads the project with artist Sylvan Hamburger. The project offers free public arts events in the park, including screen printing and drawing. The project launched in mid-July and will run until September 12. 

The Vancouver Community Action Team

We understand that for drug policy to be effective, people who use drugs need to be involved at all levels. One way we engage people with lived experience is by co-chairing the Vancouver Community Action Team (CAT) with Vancouver Coastal Health. The CAT represents approximately 25 organizations and people who use drugs who are working on or are affected by the drug poisoning crisis. The CAT works to destigmatize substance use, advocate for safe supply and changes to drug policy, raise awareness of the crisis, and more. 

Decriminalization of simple possession

In May of this year, with a central goal of reducing the stigmatization and marginalization of people who use substances, we submitted the final proposal to Health Canada (4.5 MB) requesting an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) under the provision of section 56(1). 

If approved, when a person is found to have illicit substances under a certain threshold amount within Vancouver city limits, they will not be subject to criminal sanctions. Additionally, their drugs will not be confiscated, and they will have the option of being referred to health services. The proposed model is a starting point that will remain open to evaluation and be guided by ongoing engagement with people who use drugs and our partners in health and community services, including the CAT.

We continue to work with Health Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department, and community partners on this initiative. Find more information about the decriminalization of simple possession

Vancouver has long been at the forefront of innovative approaches to addressing substance use, including safe supply, overdose prevention and harm reduction, treatment, outreach, housing, and Indigenous healing and wellness. Learn more about our approach to the overdose crisis

Help end substance-use stigma and discrimination

Combatting stigma and discrimination requires participation from citizens as well as government. Help end stigma and discrimination in your community by using the resources below:

We call on all residents to combat the stigma surrounding substance use, raise awareness of overdose-related harms, and to share our video advocating for safe supply .


Mayor Kennedy Stewart

"The overdose crisis continues to claim the lives of our family, friends, loved ones, and neighbours in every neighbourhood, no matter the income, gender, age, or background. This is not something happening to 'other' people – it's happening to all of us," said Mayor Kennedy Stewart. "That's why the City continues to invest in strategies that reduce stigma and increase access to harm reduction. That's why we've worked to secure the country's first Health Canada exemption to decriminalize simple possession. And that's why we call again on senior governments to rapidly expand access to life-saving safe supply."

Elli Lynn Taylor, Board Member, and Tracey Draper, Program Coordinator with WAHRS

"WAHRS does outreach, and it's not just about handing out supplies and resources, it's about connection," said Elli Lynn Taylor, Board Member, and Tracey Draper, Program Coordinator with WAHRS. "The medicine that we give is connection. Connection to our people. The people we serve are our equals, brothers, sisters, our teachers, and we honour their experience. That is why we are here."