Original Published on Sep 02, 2022 at 17:02

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Vancouver drug user rights group says it won’t stop distributing free, uncontaminated street drugs after Health Canada denied its request  to expand low-barrier safe supply efforts across British Columbia.

And it has now applied to appeal Ottawa’s decision in a judicial review at the Supreme Court.

“As concerned citizens who love our  community, we will do whatever we have to, buy whatever substances we  need to, to keep those who use drugs safe,” said Drug User Liberation  Front co-founder Eris Nyx in a Wednesday press conference with other  drug user rights groups from across B.C.

The volunteer-run Drug User Liberation Front has given out  small doses of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin to people over 18  and currently using drugs since June 2020 in an effort to prevent  escalating deaths from toxic drug poisonings.

No one has overdosed or died with the drugs DULF procures from the dark web and tests before distributing.

“We have an answer [to the crisis] that  could be expanded across the province immediately with sanction from  Health Canada,” said Nyx.

DULF’s unconventional approach reflects the urgency of bold action to address the toxic drug crisis in B.C., which has killed more than 10,000 people since 2016. 

Prohibition is killing six people a day in  B.C., Nyx said, but government efforts have not challenged that  framework deeply enough. “We need a change in the way we approach this  crisis,” she added.

Compassion clubs are a non-medical form of  safe supply, a harm reduction strategy means of separating people who  use drugs from the unpredictable and increasingly potent street drug  supply.

Without an exemption from Health Canada in  the public interest, DULF is breaking the law. No one has been arrested  and many have even donated money to purchase the drugs, a demonstration  of public support for bold solutions to the crisis, Nyx said.

DULF’s August 2021 submission to Ottawa had  the support of Vancouver city council, Vancouver Coastal Health, the BC  Centre on Substance Use and the First Nations Health Authority.

But on July 29, Health Canada denied DULF’s  application to be exempt from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act  and formalize the compassion club model of safe supply across B.C. in a  15-month evaluative pilot program, the group announced Wednesday.

DULF has been running the proposed club  without federal approval since July 31, Nyx said, distributing more than  200 grams of untainted, clearly labelled street drugs. It has no plans  to stop.

“Today marks one month of running the club  successfully without overdose and without death,” she said. “This  represents a solution.”

The news came the same day as more than 200  people who use drugs, allies and advocates marched in Vancouver’s  Downtown Eastside neighbourhood to mark International Overdose Awareness  Day.

The sun beat down on the crowd as it moved  down Hastings, stopping at each major intersection to occupy the space  and hear from more speakers. 

Some grieved the deaths of loved ones lost a  decade ago, while many others were more recently bereaved. One mother  said her adult son died in his sleep just five days ago.

“Today I feel an immense amount of rage,” said Beelee Lee, vice-president of the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War. 

“We keep meeting and speaking like this and remembering those we lost because the government won’t act,” Lee said.

Since toxic drug poisoning deaths were  declared a public health emergency on April 14, 2016, the death rate has  more than doubled to 41.6 per 100,000 in B.C. 

But the prohibition regime speakers said is  to blame for soaring deaths began long before then, with the banning of  alcohol use by Indigenous peoples under the Indian Act in 1884. Bans on  non-medical cocaine and morphine use followed in 1911, after a racist  riot targeted Vancouver’s Chinatown.

First Nations people are also more than  five times as likely to die of toxic drug poisonings than non-Indigenous  people, according to a 2021 report from the First Nations Health Authority.

“The opioid crisis is real, with four  family members immediately lost in my circle, all teenagers,” said  Kwitsel Tatel, a member of the Stó:lō Nation.

Governments have not adequately challenged  the criminalization and prohibition that leaves people stuck accessing a  market incentivized by profit and run by organized crime, speakers  said. 

This has led to increasing contamination  with more potent substances such as fentanyl and carfentanil, as well as  the rise of benzodiazepines, which make drug poisonings more difficult  to reverse and more likely to be fatal when mixed with opioids.

Myles Harps, a member of the Vancouver Area  Network of Drug Users, lost his wife Laura Lee to a toxic drug  poisoning in Vancouver last year, after she bought a bad batch of  heroin. 

“We’re now losing people all the time. Good  people. People that count,” he said as the demonstrators occupied the  intersection of Main and Hastings. “You’ve got to fight for the people  that are here today.”

And many stressed that government actions on prescribed safe supply and the forthcoming decriminalization of small amounts of some drugs for personal use don’t go far enough to save lives.

Fred Cameron works for SOLID Outreach Society in Victoria. Two SOLID members recently passed away, including Paige Phillips, a 32-year-old mother of two young daughters.

My colleagues “have everything our government and the best and brightest have to offer, and we still lose them,” said Cameron.

Nyx has hope that DULF’s compassion club  will be able to save lives even without federal permission, but she  wants Ottawa to get out of the way and allow them to expand their  response.

“We are not criminals, we are simply those  who care about the people we love,” said Nyx. “Move over, or we will  move on over you.”

This item reprinted with permission from   The Tyee   Vancouver, British Columbia
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