As voting approaches, mayoral candidate Fred Harding is the first to admit he doesn’t know enough about weed, but that won’t stop him from taking on the city’s dispensary issue if elected.
“I have an issue with drugs in general, it’s just an issue for me. But I am not going to turn around and tell businesses that are just trying to make a living they’re not allowed to,” he says over the phone to the Georgia Straight.
The former police officer isn’t himself pro-weed, but he’s open to cannabis-friendly solutions if it helps the city’s overdose problem.
“I’ve seen the videos, I’ve seen the evidence, I’ve seen kids with chronic seizures, Parkinson’s…you would have to be a moron in a hurry not to recognize the benefits from cannabis.”
Harding retired last year, ending an 18-year-long career with the West Vancouver Police Department. Prior to that he was a detective with the Metropolitan Police Service in London, from 1984 to 1997.
Now he has set his sights on municipal politics, running under the banner of the Vancouver 1st party. The party has made a concerted effort to show a willingness to modernize with the younger voter demographic, announcing plans to build an NBA stadium in south Vancouver and make the nightlife-friendly Granville strip pedestrian-only.
In a policy announcement sent to the Straight, the party announced it now has plans to develop a strategy to combat opioid addiction, the fentanyl overdose crisis, and questions surrounding Vancouver’s cannabis dispensaries, currently in limbo as a result of the new regulations. In light of the federal legalization of cannabis, municipalities, including Vancouver, were handed the reins when it came to regulating existing and future pot shops. Many tightened operational requirements. The new laws for Vancouver effectively label compassion clubs and dispensaries that have been operating in the industry for years black market, forcing most to either close or attempt a jump to the regulated market.
Where would Harding place himself on the yay-or-nay cannabis spectrum? “I am not pro-cannabis. I have a pro-cannabis related policy. But…I come at this with a complete open mind.”
“We have a crisis. We have to tackle it. The idea is that we go and get the best information possible to help us deal with it,” he says.
He approach to this new policy is reflective of a shift in thinking across the country following the federal legalization on October 17.
Relying on industry experts
Harding says, if elected, he will appoint a cannabis lawyer and drug policy expert Robert Laurie, as special advisor to the Office of the Mayor on Drug and Community Health Policy.
“It’s not my wheelhouse. I’m not going to pretend it is. I’m not going to say I am an expert. But that’s why we have somebody like Rob coming on board,” says Harding.
“Rob comes as a legal scholar and that’s the level of expertise I want.”
Laurie has counselled and represented a number of clients, ranging from a variety of sectors in of the cannabis industry, from activists to major corporations.
He is currently representing 40 local dispensaries in a test case against the B.C. Supreme Court, alongside cannabis lawyers John Conroy and Jack Lloyd. Earlier this year, the city of Vancouver filed a petition to shut down stores that have traditionally operated in the grey area of the unregulated cannabis market.
Laurie says that the test case argument rests on the fact that Vancouver did not have the right to license dispensaries in the first place, therefore has been aiding and abetting organized crime, or is, at least, profiting from it for years. The case is awaiting final decision, but if the dispensaries win, he says it could set a precedent from which other jurisdictions could build on.
Laurie states “I am positioned in the epicentre of this industry. I’ve earned my spurs within the cannabis community in that when I take a project on, I finish it. This has always been about patient medical access,” says Laurie over the phone.
“The biggest problem I have had in dealing with City Hall in the past is that you end up spending most of your time dealing with the layers of bureaucracy and there is no actual access to the mayor.”
Laurie says he is confident that his insight gained from years working within the cannabis community will help educate the decisions on cannabis regulation in Vancouver.
“I know who the good, bad, and ugly are. I’m hoping by providing my insight it will help the government address proper cannabis and dispensary regulations,” he says.
Laurie says, as it stands, the municipal government is painting all of the city’s dispensaries with the black market brush. He says he can help policy makers understand that the landscape is closer to what he calls “50 shades of green,’ in that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t settle the current problems.
The policy won’t be popular
Harding says the aggressive approach to tackling the dispensary regulations is likely not to go over well with some of his supporters.
“I have a lot of people come through my campaign who are utterly opposed to this,” he says.
Specifically, he refers to constituents living in Chinatown, a neighbourhood that has traditionally been very vocal in their opposition of cannabis dispensaries.
“We have to make sure that certain sections of the community are respected in their abhorrence of dispensaries, and others are respected in terms of their desire to see dispensaries,” he says.
A strong focus on harm reduction
Harding wants to be clear—he is not approaching the issues from the perspective of a former officer, but rather someone who has lived through poverty.
“In the past, I have been very, very poor…I will not stand by while people are needlessly in poverty. I won’t stand by while people refuse to lend a hand.”
Harding says he has spoken to local law enforcement and first responders dealing firsthand with the city’s overdose crisis. “They’re saying they just want to be able to do their job,” he says, adding that most officers feel there are too many barriers and too little support, which prevents them from making an impact.
While Harding declined to elaborate on exactly what this new initiative will actually look like until he consults further with Laurie, he did say the city needs a solution for recovering addicts coming out of rehab.
“We can’t have people coming from rehab, after going through a program and dealing with their trauma, and the only place left for them to go to is the Downtown Eastside,” he says.
“You’re putting people back into an area surrounded by everything they’re hoping to get over. The amount of self-help and willpower to stay sober as an addict in the Downtown Eastside is something none of us will ever comprehend.”
He also says he intends to revisit the salaries of outreach workers dealing firsthand with the overdose crisis.
“My goal is to make sure they are paid commensurate with a salary of a nurse, and not of an outreach worker. The work they’re doing is saving lives,” he says.
“They’re the first responders as well. The crisis and the trauma is affecting so many people. I want their salary to be reflective of the work they’re doing.”
Harm reduction and the overdose crisis is a major issue on several candidates’ platforms.
Independent candidate Sarah Blyth, founder of the Overdose Prevention Site, is also vying for a spot in city council and says she the city’s fentanyl crisis is her top priority.
With voting date coming up on Saturday (October 20), the Green Party, OneCity Vancouver, and Vision Vancouver are also amongst the parties to come out strong with plans to tackle overdose prevention.