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Election 2021

This Overdose Awareness Day, Activists Will Again Hand Out Safe Drugs

After tracking 900 drug users during three earlier events, advocates say their 'compassion club' model has resulted in zero overdoses.

Jen St. Denis 24 Aug

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

In the midst of a federal election campaign, a group of activists plan to again hand out tested, untainted heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine in a push to put the need for regulated, wide-reaching safe supply on the agenda.

The “compassion club” model the Drug User Liberation Front has been demonstrating since June 2020 can’t be found in any party platform.

Eris Nyx, one of the founders of the Drug User Liberation Front, says that organized drug users, not politicians, have led the way in pushing for drug policy reforms in response to poisoned, unregulated drugs.

“I don't see them moving towards the kind of models we're proposing unless we do it and then are like, you have to sanction this — because we're right,” Nyx said.

The Drug User Liberation Front has done three previous handouts of pharmaceutical-grade drugs, the first in June 2020 in the Downtown Eastside, the second in April 2021 in the same neighbourhood, and the third – with Vancouver city Coun. Jean Swanson participating — this July at City Hall.

DULF’s next distribution will happen Tuesday, Aug. 31 as part of Overdose Awareness Day, in partnership with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. The group spent $4,000 to buy drugs on the internet using cryptocurrency, and has tested, packaged and labelled the drugs to clearly state what is in each substance (for instance, 40 per cent heroin, 60 per cent caffeine).

This time, DULF has mailed drugs to several drug user advocacy groups around British Columbia in an attempt to prove that a scaled-up model can work.

Nyx said the Overdose Awareness Day events will start with a “ceremonial handoff” of 14 grams of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine between VANDU and Moms Stop the Harm, an advocacy group of parents who have lost family members to drug-related harms or substance abuse, outside the Vancouver office of Adrian Dix, B.C.’s health minister.

Leslie McBain, a co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said the group had decided to hand out the drugs this year — not simply show up to show support — to send a message.

“If the public and the leaders of parties understood that what legal regulation means is like alcohol, cannabis and tobacco — that’s what we’re talking about. Those have been legally regulated,” McBain said. “If you have a martini, it’s not going to kill you today.”

In the afternoon, on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside, VANDU will hand out 14 grams of the tested drugs to members who are over 18 and already use illicit drugs.

And on the same day, the Drug User Liberation Front plans to send a request for an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to be able to distribute safe drugs legally. The act allows the federal health minister to issue an exemption from any part of the legislation “for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”

In 2020, British Columbia had Canada’s highest rate of deaths per 100,000 people from drug toxicity: 33.9, compared to 25.6 for Alberta, the province with the next highest rate. In the first five months of 2021, B.C.’s rate has soared even higher, to 39.3. Between 2016 and 2020, over 21,000 people in Canada died of opioid toxicity.

Canada’s already toxic illicit drug supply has become even more dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, as border closures increased the likelihood that drugs bought on the street will be tainted with high levels of the synthetic opioid fentanyl or benzodiazepines. Stimulants like crack cocaine are also often tainted by fentanyl.

While the B.C. government promised to expand safe supply programs, which prescribe alternatives to unregulated street drugs, critics say the programs are too limited to help everyone who uses illicit drugs. After years of being scrutinized for their opioid prescribing, some doctors are also reluctant to prescribe opioids for safe supply.

With every drug handout event, Nyx said she and other organizers have tracked whether people have overdosed. They’ve collected survey responses from 900 drug users, and so far none of the clean drug recipients have reported an overdose.

But the group’s efforts to scale up the model are hampered by the availability of clean drugs — heroin is especially hard to find — and the limited resources of a handful of volunteers who organize DULF’s activities off the “side of the side of the desk.” Nyx said the money to buy the drugs comes from “middle class, normal citizens who give us donations.”

“At the end of the day, it's stigma that prevents people from envisioning a liquor store that sells narcotics,” Nyx said.

“If someone has a martini set at home, people don't seem to think anything of it. But if someone has gear or something to snort drugs with, it's disgusting.”  [Tyee]

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