As the rate of illicit drug overdoses in Vancouver continues to soar, a group of activists have enlisted the help of a city councillor to hand out free samples of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine - right in front of a police station.
The province of British Columbia is the nexus of Canada’s drug overdose crisis, now in its fifth year of a public health emergency.
Last month a report from the BC Coroners Service revealed that 160 people had died from an overdose in just the month of May – an average of 5.2 people per day. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said 851 had lost their lives due to an overdose in the first five months of 2021 - a new record for that five-month period.
Poisoned drugs are fuelling the crisis, particularly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
It’s led the City of Vancouver to formally seek exemption from federal drug laws to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalise the possession of a small supply of drugs, including heroin and meth. The proposal, dubbed the “Vancouver model”, lists threshold levels for 15 common substances, with the city saying this would lead to a dramatic reduction in seizures by police.
However, activists say not only were they not consulted on the proposal, but it is simply not enough.
Anger over the decriminalisation proposal this week culminated in an event held by the Drug User Liberation Front (Dulf), a Vancouver-based activist group, staged outside the Vancouver Police Department.
With the help of city councillor Jean Swanson, the group handed out free samples of clean, checked drugs in clearly labelled boxes, marked with what was in the drugs and at what percentage. They spent about $3,000 from a crowdsourcing campaign to buy the drugs from “trusted dealers”.
Dulf has staged similar events across the city previously, as a public call for a more regulatory framework to deal with illicit drugs.
While police say they were not aware of drugs being handed out at the event, Jeremy Kalicum, Dulf organiser, says the group works closely with the police and notifies them of every planned protest. Kalicum says that includes informing them that drugs would be handed out.
Kalicum said he even sent the chief of police a “golden ticket”, which were used to distribute the drugs to users, so he could redeem a box for himself.
This is a point that the police now contest, however, after members of the public raised concerns over the event in the days since it was held.
“We were aware of the planned protest, but I’m not sure if we were aware about the drug distribution,” Constable Tania Visintin says. “There have been a number of concerned citizens that have reached out. We are currently reviewing the circumstances.”
Dulf distributed the drugs to Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Tenant Overdose Response Organisers, Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War, who then provided them to their members at the event. Overdose Prevention Society staff were present.
Swanson joined after being asked by organisers she has known from a decade working in Downtown Eastside, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, prior to her career as a city councillor.
“Most councillors probably wouldn’t go and hand [drugs] out but they do support safe supply,” she says.
Swanson says the government has been “ignoring” the advocacy groups and the current proposed legislation was “wimpy”.
“They’re bringing it in in a very bureaucratic way and it’s not going to benefit anyone.
“What our little action showed is that if a couple of groups with not much money can do it, then a government with billions of dollars can do it.”
Swanson was disappointed in the lack of action from the government, given that drug-related deaths outstripped lives lost during the Covid pandemic in BC.
“Why won’t the powers that be pull out all the stops for people who use drugs like they did for Covid?”
Eris Nyx, a harm reduction activist and one of the organisers of the event, said their regulatory model works in supplying people who use drugs with safe products.
“We aren’t criminals. We have an unpredictable, volatile drug market that is caused by the prohibition of drugs,” she says.
“It’s killing our friends, it’s killing our families, it’s killing our neighbours… we need to regulate.”
Nyx says drug dealers often provide drugs cut with different, harmful substances, such as fentanyl, and a user often has no idea what they’re buying. A regulatory framework would put an end to that.
She also believes a “peer support model” involving healthcare and better education for drug users is the way forward, saying the “current system that involves police, courts and prosecution” needs to be dismantled.
“When you’ve seen the things we’ve seen, you can’t do anything else but try and prevent all these deaths. And we think this is the right way of going about it.”
There is mounting evidence that decriminalising drugs is an effective way at decreasing the rate of overdoses.
Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001. A decade later, the number of lethal opioid overdoses had dropped fivefold.
As well as BC’s possession decriminalisation proposal, the province will also provide $45 million for overdose prevention over the next three years, including safe consumption sites and naloxone supply.
However Kalicum says this is not accessible to those “most at risk”, doctors are “afraid” to prescribe safe supply, and those who do prescribe are “viciously attacked by their peers”.
He says decriminalisation will not reduce overdoses as the supply chain will stay the same.
Vandu staff member Vince Tao doesn’t mince his words on the province’s proposed decriminalisation measures, calling it a “bulls*** premise”.
Vandu’s mantra is “nothing about us without us”, Tao says, and authorities had not consulted them to put together the proposal.
Vandu board member Jon Braithwaite, who is also a drug user, says incarcerations and hospital visits would naturally decrease with full decriminalisation, as people would be using clean drugs, clean utensils and not have to rely on toxic substances. He says many of his friends had been jailed for illicit drug use, and these were people who “don’t deserve it”.
Another event with free drug samples will be held on August 31, which is international overdose awareness day.
“We’re going to keep doing it until something changes, it’s our only option at this point,” Nyx says.
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