British Columbia

Vancouver club will continue to distribute hard drugs in bid to save lives, despite Health Canada rejection

Organizers of a Vancouver compassion club say they will continue to distribute tested cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine despite a rejection from Health Canada, calling it the only way to save lives in the face of a toxic drug supply.

Drug User Liberation Front says regulating illicit supply will prevent further deaths

A man holds boxes containing cocaine, meth and heroin that were handed out during a safe supply event in Vancouver in 2021. Local compassion clubs say they will keep handing out tested hard drugs despite being denied an exemption by Health Canada. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Organizers of a Vancouver compassion club say they will continue to distribute tested cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine despite a rejection from Health Canada, calling it the only way to save lives in the face of a toxic drug supply.

Eris Nyx, co-founder of the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) — a collective of advocacy groups working to ensure a safe supply of drugs — said regulating the illicit supply is the answer to stopping drug toxicity deaths, which have topped 10,000 in British Columbia since the province declared a public health emergency more than six years ago.

"These people are our friends, our community members, people we love, people we care about very deeply and we're losing them every day. And the driving cause of these deaths is the deregulated and unpredictable illicit drug market,'' Nyx said Wednesday.

Nyx spoke at a news conference marking International Overdose Awareness Day, saying the groups are also seeking a judicial review of the Health Canada decision, on the basis that it didn't consider charter rights to life and equality.

DULF and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users requested the temporary Criminal Code exemption from Health Canada to operate a compassion club model for hard drugs last year. It was rejected July 29.

Nonetheless, Nyx said the Cocaine, Heroin and Methamphetamine Compassion Club and Fulfilment Centre has operated for one month, distributing 201 grams of drugs with no overdoses or deaths.

Dozens of people block off a large street during a protest.
A march and rally organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users marked overdose awareness day on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The group is pursuing a "do-it-yourself" model of community regulation that Nyx said could be scaled up across the province with approval.

"What we have is a problem of regulation. What we have is a failure of the regime of prohibition. And that failure does not make it a criminal issue or a medical issue, that failure makes it a political issue,'' Nyx said.

People in a crowd close their eyes, two people embrace and another grimaces as they remember people who have died due to the toxic drug supply at a rally on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, B.C.
During a rally on East Hastings Street in Vancouver on Wednesday, participants pause to remember loved ones lost to the poisoned drug supply crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Health Canada could not immediately be reached for comment, but a statement commemorating Overdose Awareness Day said the government is investing in safe supply programs, supervised consumption sites and drug checking technologies.

Last year was the worst year on record for opioid-related overdoses in Canada, with about 21 people dying every day, said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Carolyn Bennett, minister of mental health and addictions, in the joint statement.

Decriminalizing small amounts of drugs not enough: advocates

British Columbia is set to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January, after receiving a federal exemption in May.

It means those 18 and over will not face criminal penalties for possessing a total of 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

However, speakers at the virtual news conference Wednesday said the amount is insignificant, and means those who work to distribute safe supply will still be criminalized.

A woman in sandals and a man in red shoes sit on the curb of Vancouver's East Hastings street. The woman has a tatoo on her right arm and is holding a yellow cardboard sign attached to a piece of wood that reads, "Decrim isn't decrim if it's not for everyone." The man is wearing a camo baseball cap and has his head bowed. Three people are walking in the background.
Participants in a march on Vancouver's East Hastings Street to mark overdose awareness day take a break. After more than 10,000 deaths due to toxic drugs since 2016, community groups are calling on the province to expand drug decriminalization and offer safe supply. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Imagine if alcohol prohibition had continued and the entire illicit alcohol supply was unpredictable to the point that if you open a bottle or a can of alcohol and drank from it, it could kill you,'' Nyx said.

"The government's response, the equivalent response, would be that you can go to your doctor and be prescribed three light beers. That is a non-sense scenario. We need to change the way we approach this crisis.''

Fred Cameron, of SOLID Outreach Society in Victoria, said the skyrocketing deaths since the 1990s show the problem is with the supply.

"What's different about then and now — there was not better abstinence supports or better consumption services. The dope was not poisonous,'' he said.

"There's one major issue that's causing all of this and we're addressing everything but, as a system.''

People will always use drugs, he said, so the priority should be ensuring the drugs are as safe as possible.

The news conference was one of many events across B.C. and Canada acknowledging Overdose Awareness Day. Metro Vancouver landmarks were set to be lit up in purple to mark the day, while lost lives were to be memorialized at Holland Park in Surrey, about an hour's drive southeast of Vancouver. 

Other officials, organizations weigh in

Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.'s minister of mental health and addictions, issued a statement, saying it was a day to mourn with the families and friends who have lost loved ones.

"That loss is shared by peer workers, paramedics, firefighters, police officers and all those on the front lines of this terrible crisis,'' the statement said.

Increasing toxicity is outpacing the addition of overdose prevention services, despite an unprecedented number of new treatment and harm-reduction services, it said.

A woman with a purple ribbon on her chest holds out a kit with a cross and the word 'NALOXONE' on it.
An outreach worker holds a naloxone kit — which can reverse an opioid overdose — outside St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association called for the full decriminalization of all drug possession for personal use, as well as the sharing or selling of drugs for subsistence, to support personal drug use costs or to provide a safe supply.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs noted that First Nations people were 5.4 times more likely to fatally overdose than others and said the crisis is a symptom of unaddressed, long-term problems.

"We call for safe and affordable housing, mental and physical health systems free from racism and discrimination, accessible socio-economic services to support people in crisis, and a full spectrum of culturally appropriate substance-use services to meet the needs of all people who use drugs,'' Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said in a statement.

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