Donald MacPherson

October 10, 2017

2017 Sterling Prize Recipient

Donald MacPherson, the Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, is the recipient of the 2017 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy for his work and influence in public health, human rights, and, drug policy reform in Canada.

“I am very honoured—it feels amazing to receive this award,” says MacPherson. “Simon Fraser University has been on the cutting edge of thinking around drug policy for 30 years if not longer.”

He will be presented with the Sterling Prize at an award ceremony held on Tuesday, October 10 at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at SFU’s Vancouver campus.

MacPherson was working for the City of Vancouver as the Drug Policy Coordinator in 2001 when he drafted the A Framework For Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Vancouver's Drug Problems (colloquially referred to as the Four Pillars Approach). Drawing on successful practices from European cities as well as ideas from within the community, the Four Pillars Approach advocated for drug prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement. The policy was radically progressive—with recommendations that would lead to the creation of the supervised drug injection facility Insite and prescription heroin addiction treatment programs.

“There should only be one side to this discussion: what is the best regulatory system to protect Canadians,” he says. “Drugs are problematic no matter how you look at it so we’re not looking for the perfect system, we’re looking for the least worst system of regulation. The worst system is the one we have right now—drug prohibition is the worst system and we have the numbers to prove it.”

MacPherson, through the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, continues to work with multiple organizations and governments to advocate for further reform. The recent opioid crisis that has spread across the country has increased the urgency for more political action on drug reform.

“The drug market is so toxic now that we have to end the illegal drug market,” MacPherson says. “The only way to do that is to begin to seek control of those drugs and regulate them—just as we’re doing with cannabis. Why should organized gangs and unregulated dealers get to operate this huge market in our country?”

MacPherson is no stranger to the controversy that drug reform holds within politics. The Four Pillars Approach and its advocacy for new prevention, treatment, and harm reduction methods was highly opposed by the conservative Harper government and even criticized by the Bush administration. The conservative viewpoint favouring drug criminalization and prohibition poses challenges to progressive politicians.

“We want to make it possible for politicians to talk about regulating drugs without risking their political lives,” he says. “We think it’s abhorrent that politicians play politics with peoples’ lives when the right thing to do is staring them right in the face—do what we do with all other substances and products—we regulate them.”