Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 9: Call it what it is: a look at the opioid crisis — with Sarah Blyth

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Maria Cecilia Saba, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Sarah Blyth

[theme music]

Melissa Roach  0:00
You’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization project recorded out of 312 Main. This podcast is produced by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

Maria Cecilia Saba  00:17
Below the Radar brings forward ideas to encourage meaningful exchanges across communities. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:21
Each episode we interview guests on topics ranging from environmental and social justice, arts, culture, community building, and urban issues. This podcast is recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:42
You’re listening to Below the Radar. My name is Jamie-Leigh Gonzales and this week I’m talking to Sarah Blyth. Sarah ran as an independent candidate for City Council in the most recent municipal election. She also helped start the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) and served two terms as a Park Board Commissioner. For years, she’s been a leading voice in the Downtown Eastside when it comes to addressing drug policy or responding to the opioid crisis. Despite not getting a seat on City Council, she's still working on the front lines in the Downtown Eastside with OPS.

[theme music fades]

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  1:20
Alright, welcome to Below the Radar. My name is Jamie-Leigh Gonzales and I work out of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. I’m here with Sarah Blyth and, I mean, let’s just jump into it, get into all the good stuff. If there’s anything you want to introduce yourself specifically right now…?

Sarah Blyth  1:38
Okay, yeah. I guess I’m the executive director for the Overdose Prevention Society and we run a safe injection site for people in the Downtown Eastside and we see up to, around three to four hundred people a day, up to 700 people a day, and we’ve seen over 200,000 people and we’ve never lost any lives and we’ve saved a lot of lives so… it’s a pretty cool place to be a part of, but it’s a difficult place, at times, too.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  2:13
Absolutely, yeah. And you have been a very vocal voice in the opioid crisis and the prevention response, not just through your work with OPS but also running for council recently and your work with PHS and all of that stuff. So I’m curious what you’re up to now?

Sarah Blyth  2:33
Well, I’m just doing what I was doing before so, and running for council was really good. It’s hard to win as an independent but I gave it a shot, and it was kind of interesting, just because I’ve been so involved in the crisis for so long and it’s been going on so long, it was an interesting kind of break, in some ways, from dealing with the crisis  all the time. But it also gave me a chance to bring the issues into all the different neighbourhoods and talk to people about issues that are affecting them and learning more about what’s happening in everybody’s community. It was really good, and I really enjoyed my time and met a lot of great people. Educated people and bridged some gaps.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  3:14
Yeah, I think even just running has brought you more into the focus, in the public eye, and that’s, I mean, helpful in so many ways in bringing these issues to light. How do you think the new municipal government will address the drug policies or the overdose crisis?

Sarah Blyth  3:36
Well, I know, there’s been so many task forces that I’m just hoping that they start to implement some of these initiatives or ideas that people have come up with that have been family members or people with lived experience or drug users themselves. Just making sure that some of these ideas are tough to implement as politicians, and I’m just hoping that they don’t just continue to try and come up with ideas to avoid what really is necessary, and that’s just getting a safe supply to people who are in the crisis and using, because fentanyl is just so addictive. People, we need to get them off of something that might kill them onto something that’s not going to kill them, and that they know what dose that they’re taking and that’s the only thing that’s gonna really help the crisis. It will also help with a lot of things like survival sex trade, you know, instead of having to go out there and make money doing things that women may not want to do, give them the ability to just get drugs that they need without having to do some of the harder stuff that might cause more trauma and put them at risk. Also even breaking into cars and other things, so, I think you can… you know, it's just responsible thing to do in so many ways, and people feel like it’d be a bit of a political risk to run these programs, but actually in the end, it doesn’t matter because it’ll save money, save lives and everything else that’s necessary. So it’s really important that you need this leadership to get out there and just say “this is the right thing to do” and be strong on it, or else we’re just implementing programs that don’t really work or just mandates.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  05:36
Yeah, absolutely. What’s your perception of the government’s response so far, whether it’s municipal, provincial, federal?

Sarah Blyth  05:42
Well, I think, you know, municipally we can do a lot better. We criminalize a lot of drug users and they get charge for, you know, just having the small supply and making a mental health issue a criminal issue and send people through the criminal system as opposed to actually helping them with the help that they need, which is housing, mental health or other types of health issues that they might have. So I think that we’re failing our most vulnerable people by just jailing them and doing that to them, so I think that that’s terrible. And it doesn’t provide any hope for the person that’s living in an alley in the Downtown Eastside. We need to, you know, do a lot better municipally.

Sarah Blyth  06:38
Provincially, with the overdose prevention sites, it’s been really good, but we really need to focus on getting safe access both provincially and federally. So we need to continue to push for that, and it needs to be treated like an actual crisis. There’s people dying in the streets in Vancouver more than there ever has for any other crisis that I think has been known. So we just have to treat it like the crisis it is and do something, you know, do some bold thing, don’t just do things that we’ve done for a hundred years because that’s kind of how we got ourselves to where we are right now. So, the war on drugs didn’t work, we need to now treat people and help people.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  07:23
Yeah, I mean the war on drugs just created stigma and dehumanized people who are just self-medicating and trying to cope and deal. Sorry, and federally, I guess, is the last.

Sarah Blyth  07:36
Well, I think that we should definitely be calling it what it is, and that's a national health crisis and doing it in an official way, because it is, and I think that bringing more attention but also decriminalizing drugs across Canada, making sure that people have safe access as much as they can, it’s really going to make a huge difference in the crisis itself. So i think everything, you know, you can do everything you want to do, but if you don’t do that, it won’t really do much, I think, in the end, to help the crisis and also, I mean, also, hope, health, you know, hope and housing and other things like that.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  08:18
So do you, what’s next for you?  Do you think you would go back to politics or are you feeling burnt out from that? Or...I mean, I imagine it would burn me out, but…

Sarah Blyth  08:32
I’m used to doing lots of things so, I don’t know, I’m always wondering what’s next and trying to keep it interesting. I’m happy doing what I’m doing and I was a bit worried that if there was a chance - and I knew that it would be difficult - if there was a chance that I did make it to council it would be difficult to kind of leave that I’m doing right now ‘cause I feel like the work that I’m doing is really important, so...but you know, I was committed to continue to help. So the thing is, is that...I’m not really sure. Things come up and then you just, you go “should I do this or not?” and try to make good, decent decisions about what you’re gonna do. But who knows? I don’t know. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  09:17
Yeah, ‘cause it’s not your first time in politics, you were…

Sarah Blyth  09:23
A park commissioner.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  09:23
Yeah, yeah. And you started because you just wanted to make some change, yeah?

Sarah Blyth  09:27
Yeah, I mean, there’s really benefits to making change from the front lines and, you know, being on the ground, grassroots. And then there’s also benefits to being in government and making policy, hearing from people, accepting interesting, cool new ideas and having people like that in government is really important, because you aren’t going to get anything interesting done without some interesting people that will be willing to listen to your ideas, so we need a little bit of...that’s why it’s great to have...hopefully, this council seems, I’s pretty diverse in terms of what they bring to the table and who they are as people. It’s not diverse, you know, in terms of…

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  10:13

Sarah Blyth  10:14
Yeah, visibly. Yeah. And we have to do better than that in the future and I really hope that they’re gonna find a way to make it a more diverse council and give people opportunities to…’cause nobody, you know, how does anyone want to run if they think that they don’t have a chance? So you’re gonna get less and less people putting their name forward because it’s a lot of time, effort, commitment. You have to go meetings across the city, and if you think that it’s gonna be all white people who get elected, I would people actually wanna run and be involved in that sort of thing? There’s just gotta be some really big changes to that, and that’s partially education and...but people are...even Desmond Cole, he got carded yesterday, did you see that?

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  11:08
I didn’t see that!

Sarah Blyth  11:11
Yeah, so he came to Vancouver to talk to people about carding, and he gets carded right near Stanley Park and it’s unbelievably shocking.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  11:20
And he’s like...that’s not a new issue for him to talk about. People don’ do you not recognize him as the voice of that, you know?

Sarah Blyth  11:29
And he gets carded within 24 hours of being here…

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales 11:32
Fuck… sorry I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that here.

Sarah Blyth  11:33
(laughs) And yeah...but it’s not shocking to me. In some ways, it’s not that I’m glad that it happened, but people in the Downtown Eastside living in poverty and that are homeless deal with it everyday, and no one takes, like you talk about it, no one takes it seriously. And so, having someone like that…

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  12:55
A little more high profile?

Sarah Blyth 12:57
Yeah, can say “this happened to me, and if it happens to me, it happens to other people too.” And so, it’s been...and to me that’s really important because it does, I see it happen! People get carded all day! And it’s disgusting, really, because it’s human rights being trampled and people being carded based on their skin colour, and it’s totally not cool.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  12:29
Yeah, and I feel, I mean, to loop it back around, like I do feel like we reflect back at our city these ideas that are really deeply ingrained because we have an all-white council, except for Pete Fry.

Sarah Blyth  12:43
Yeah, I mean, it just brings to mind the subconscious of people and that’s an issue that’s not really...that’s in the subconscious whether anyone wants to admit to it or anything else. It’s actually something that people are really dealing with on a regular basis.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  14:00
Yeah, and also, how is policy going to change if we are continuously electing people who don’t experience any of those things, right? Yeah, I think diversity within our council is a major issue.

Sarah Blyth  13:13
Yeah, experience in any way...when you can speak to things from experience, it’s the only way to understand it, because no one can really understand someone else’s thing. When you have lived experience in anything, and you know, that’s why asking drug users how, what their lived experience is actually is the thing that...and when drug users have lived experience, they can really truthfully talk about what it’s like, and no one else can do that.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  13:43
What do you think the impacts of the legalization of cannabis in BC will be?

Sarah Blyth  13:49
Well that’s kinda just rolling out right now. For people that are homeless that don’t, if they want medical cannabis, people that are homeless don’t have an address, don’t have a credit card, so they can’t buy any of this medical cannabis online. So it’s gonna be challenging for people who are poor and living in poverty to get medication that they need, which brings it around to then they go back to the black market and those sorts of things.  So I think it’s like, you know, with everything there’s good intentions but it’s legalizing and then having it more...criminalization of it. I really think that, I really hope, I had a person in the Downtown Eastside have a police officer say, or actually several people saying like “after legalization and you’re caught smoking, I’ll be able to give you a $500 fine for smoking a joint.” So they can’t if you’re a medical user but, to be honest, who the hell...why would they use that to like...that’s a terrible use of police officer time, right? In the Downtown Eastside or anywhere else. So I don’t know. I just think like, sometimes when you enact these things some of the consequences of that is just like more enforcement, which is not the goal of legalization. So I think as these things come up people have to really challenge them and make sure that people are getting treated fairly.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  15:25
I agree. I also think that a lot of people making the policy around this aren’t necessarily thinking of the economic benefits and you know, it’s legal, we can do this...I don’t know.

Sarah Blyth  15:35
And they don’t have the lived experience of the pot user themselves, or the cannabis user, sorry. And what the actual needs are and why. And a lot of people use it for pain relief, they use it for anxiety…

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  15:50
Absolutely, it’s a coping tool!

Sarah Blyth  15:55
Yeah, and it’s better than opiates, so like, give it to people. Let people have it, especially with the opiate crisis and everything else, I’ve seen, through our program in the past, I’ve seen that it really help people with pain, sleep and stuff like that that they were using opiates for.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  16:17
Yeah absolutely. I think it is a lot of comfortable, middle class people who are reaping the benefits of legalizing it, but there’s nothing to be done about decriminalizing and actually creating accessible cannabis for the people who would use it for medicine too. So for Vancouverites, how do you feel people not in the political sphere are responding? Do you find that you’re getting a lot of support? Do you find that you’re trying to battle the stigma? What’s your perception of Vancouverites as the mass?

Sarah Blyth  16:59
Yeah, I think that a lot of people are becoming more educated and supportive of doing something and they’re starting to understand that there are some things that we haven’t done in the past. And I think we’re at a point where we could actually do something, and the sooner the politicians figure that out and understand that, the better. You know, less people are gonna die, we’ll be world leaders on this, all the front line workers agree on it, so...what’s the hold up on this? I just think that it’s time to just get on with what we know what needs to be done that’s right for people and get people safe access.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  17:52
Yeah, and is there anything that could be done that our listeners could do to help destigmatize or get involved or anything you would suggest our listeners to put their own knowledge or skill to use?

Sarah Blyth  18:07
Well, yeah, writing letters and saying that you support safe access to it and federal, provincial, and municipal government having conversations, educating people is really, really important for change. And educating yourself, being safe...I mean, that’s one of the main things, you know.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  18:33
And I think even, if it’s okay to bring up, you said that your son works with you and he’s 15. So educating the next generation and...normalizing and humanizing these crises for the younger generation who are very influential.

Sarah Blyth  18:54
Well today is bring your kid to school day. Or no! Bring your kid to work day (laughs).

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  19:00
Yeah, okay, cool!

Sarah Blyth  19: 01
And so he’s with me today, and he’s learned how to use NARCAN, he learned how to do the drug testing, and there’s a lot of science involved with that. But you know it, and he’s like “I know people who use drugs”...I mean, we don’t need to lose anymore young people.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  19:19
And I think educating our kids is so important.

Sarah Blyth  19:21
Educating our kids is so important in saving their lives and having them make decisions and stopping something before it starts, especially with our most vulnerable kids. I think kids with learning disabilities, kids that have maybe other issues growing up are more susceptible to drug use long term, and the long term situation for someone in drug use is not a positive thing and it’s a costly thing because you I think it’s really important people when they’re young and have them understand, and also be prepared if they’re at a party and they come into an overdose or something, ‘cause that’s...the pills that kids are taking these days have, you know, are like Xanax. Insite just did a test where it’s got fentanyl in it and that’s what young people take.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  20:16
I think a lot of kids are also, you know, if that’s something they get into, it’s also a coping mechanism. So it’s like talking to your kids, making sure that if they are having a hard time that you know…

Sarah Blyth  20:27
Well there’s a lot of anxiety of being a young person, especially in this world, the way that it is. So people are looking for anxiety relief, and I understand that, but that’s not the way to do it, for a young person. Yeah, being open about it but also having a good understanding of the effects that some of these things can have on you and making good decisions...I don’t know. The education is really important.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  20:52
Yeah, education. Anything else you want to add?

Sarah Blyth  20:56
Nope, I’m pretty good.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  20:57
Cool, alright, well thanks for coming!

Sarah Blyth  20:59
Thank you!

[theme music]

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  21:06
Thanks for listening, and thank you to Sarah Blyth for coming out and talking to me. Thanks to Davis Steele for composing the music for this podcast. To the producers, Am Johal, Melissa Roach, Maria Cecilia Saba and myself. Sarah and I covered a lot of things within this conversation, but I just want to add that if you are using, do not use alone and to go to one of the safe injection sites around Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside.

[theme music fades]

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
January 28, 2019

Stay Up to Date

Get the latest on upcoming events by subscribing to our newsletter below.