Donald MacPherson is the recipient of the 2017 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. He will give a free public lecture on drug policy reform after receiving the prize on Tuesday, October 10.

media release

Donald MacPherson receives 2017 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy

MacPherson is the Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition who authored the Four Pillars Approach to Vancouver’s Drug Problem adopted by the City of Vancouver in 2001

August 22, 2017

Ian Bryce, University Communications, 604.773.8134,

Donald MacPherson, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Faculty of Health Sciences,


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.”

After the ceremony, MacPherson will give a lecture on drug policy reform. The lecture is free with registration and open to the public.

The Sterling Prize was first awarded in 1993, and remains committed to recognizing work that provokes and contributes to the understanding of controversy, while presenting new ways of looking at the world and challenging complacency. The Prize recognizes work across disciplines and departments, and is awarded annually by the Sterling Prize committee.



The Four Pillars Approach is considered as one of the boldest and progressive municipal drug policies in North America.

The Canadian federal government introduced legislation to legalize marijuana by 2018 but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that they are not considering legalizing or regulating other drugs such as opioids.



  • The City of Vancouver’s first official needle exchange program opened in 1989.
  • The Four Pillars Approach was published and adopted by the city in 2001.
  • Supervised drug injection site Insite was founded in 2003.
  • North America’s first prescription heroin clinic, Crosstown Clinic, was opened in November 2014 in Vancouver.


According to the BC Coroners Service:

  • As of June 2017, the total number of illicit drug overdose deaths in British Columbia is 780.
  • There were 111 suspected drug overdose deaths in June 2017.
  • The number of illicit drug overdose deaths in June 2017 (111) equates to about 3.7 deaths per day for the month.





As Canada's engaged university, SFU is defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement. SFU was founded more than 50 years ago with a mission to be a different kind of university—to bring an interdisciplinary approach to learning, embrace bold initiatives, and engage with communities near and far. Today, SFU is Canada’s leading comprehensive research university and is ranked one of the top universities in the world. With campuses in British Columbia’s three largest cities – Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey – SFU has eight faculties, delivers almost 150 programs to over 35,000 students, and boasts more than 145,000 alumni in 130 countries around the world.


Simon Fraser University: Engaging Students. Engaging Research. Engaging Communities.

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