Downtown Eastside residents at high risk of overdose now have Vancouver’s support to get untainted drugs, but the federal government has the final say whether they’ll get access to a legal supply.
Coun. Jean Swanson’s motion to support an application from the Drug User Liberation Front — to run North America’s first compassion club to give members access to untainted heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine — was approved by Vancouver council last week.
Drug User Liberation Front co-founders Jeremy Kalicum and Eris Nyx submitted an application for a federal exemption to Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act on Aug. 31 and had asked for city support.
While awaiting the federal decision, Liberation Front is considering whether to purchase more illicit drugs from the dark web to hand out in the DTES.
“We’re in a race against the clock,” said Nyx, a harm reduction activist and DTES resident. “We cannot stand idly by watching our community get exterminated from a poisoned drug supply.”
As recent as July, organization members tested, labelled and handed out free 3.5-gram samples of drugs outside a Vancouver police building. N
o arrests or overdoses were recorded as a result.
Cpl. Tania Visintin said Vancouver Police’s enforcement priorities target those who “produce and traffic harmful drugs” instead of users, although the force “does not support safe supply bought off the dark web.”
Kalicum, addictions researcher and former drug checker with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, admitted he’s scared of being arrested for purchasing illicit drugs.
“But what is our safety compared to the lives of thousands of people a year currently dying from overdoses?” he said.
B.C. is on track to eclipse 2020’s record high of 1,734 fatal overdoses. By July 31, there were 1,204 deaths in B.C. this year due to drug toxicity, including extreme concentrations of fentanyl and carfentanil mixed into street drugs, discovered by post mortem testing.
The Liberation Front has given the federal government until Oct. 15 to make a decision, said Kalicum.
“If we are denied, we will have to pursue legal action. We won’t stop.”
Swanson likened the group’s harm-reduction model to supervised injection sites, which were only granted a federal exemption to operate legally in Canada in 2003.
Dan Small, a founder of Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site, is familiar with the exemption process.
In its early days, Insite wasn’t approved by the city or Vancouver Coastal Health. Both have pledged their support to the Liberation Front’s compassion club proposal.
“We thought we were going to get arrested,” Small said. “We set up a non-profit shadow society called Health Quest, in case the government pulled our shelter’s funding from B.C. Housing.”
Upon being denied a fourth exemption to continue operating Insite in 2006, the founders went to court. “In 2011, we won,” said Small. “We proved that the existence of a single program like a safe injection site or a compassion club can move Vancouver ahead and save lives.”
Kalicum said he believes “similar progress” can be made toward the creation of a compassion club.
Today, there are more than 40 supervised injection sites lawfully operating in cities in Canada.
“People need a low-barrier safe supply solution on the way to systemic change, and they need it now,” Kalicum said.
Although the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions did not address whether it supports Liberation Front’s proposal, it said in an email that “separating people from the poisoned illicit drug supply is an essential health sector intervention” that prevents overdoses.
The province is in Phase 1 of the implementation of its prescribed safer supply policy, which was announced this July.
“We are taking action across the full continuum of care from harm reduction and prevention to treatment and recovery. This includes decriminalization, access to a safer supply,” said the ministry.