Brother of overdose victim plans to open brick-and-mortar store selling hard drugs in Vancouver
B.C. government says selling 'controlled substances remains illegal'
As the possession of small amounts of hard drugs is set to be decriminalized in B.C. at the end of the month, one man says he wants to take safe supply to another level.
A three-year pilot project approved by Health Canada will decriminalize the possession of up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA in the province starting Jan. 31 for British Columbians age 18 and older.
Jerry Martin, 51, says he plans to open a brick-and-mortar store in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to sell heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other substances he says will be tested and be safer for consumption than drugs bought on the street.
Even if the province says it's not legal.
After spending 15 years on the street and getting sober from hard drugs, Martin says he feels he has a duty to help end the stigma around drug users and people on the Downtown Eastside, especially since his brother died of an overdose a couple of months ago.
He says every day a store like the one he envisions is not open is another day people are dying, or are in danger.
According to the latest data from the B.C. Coroners Service, 14,000 people have died since the province declared a public health emergency over the opioid and toxic drug crisis in 2016.
"Opioids and dying from those sort of things, it's a major part of the crisis but that's not the only part," he said.
He adds that "predators" on the Downtown Eastside often take advantage of people using and purchasing hard drugs.
- B.C. will decriminalize up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs. Drug users say that threshold won't decriminalize them
"Getting robbed, getting sold something that isn't what it should be — fear and violence is the number one."
By having the drugs tested, Martin not only hopes to prevent overdoses and deaths, but also offer a safe place for people struggling with addiction.
He says his plan is to sell only to adults and offer 2.5 grams at a time.
Every purchase will also come with a bit of education: Martin says he'll warn customers about the dangers of using drugs, and direct them toward neighbourhood resources that can help them get clean, give them a place to spend the night, or offer something to eat.
But B.C.'s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says the decriminalization of people who use drugs is not the same as legalization.
"Mr. Martin's project is not within the scope of decriminalization," the ministry said in an email statement. "The selling (or trafficking) of controlled substances remains illegal."
The ministry says police will maintain the ability to enforce laws pertaining to drug trafficking after Jan. 31.
'Things should be getting tested beforehand': activist
Dana Larsen, a cannabis and drug policy reform activist, says he thinks Martin's idea will catch on.
"I think it's a good idea," Larsen told Radio-Canada. "To try to create the safe drug supply it seems everyone agrees we need, but it's not being created by government or anyone else."
In 2019, Larsen founded Get Your Drugs Tested, a free testing site on East Hastings Street. Martin says he hopes to get the drugs for his future store tested at Larsen's site.
Larsen says he anticipates a number of similar projects to pop up across the city in the next year.
He adds that on the streets, heroin has almost been completely replaced by fentanyl.
"These things should be getting tested beforehand," Larsen said.
"They should be labelled, and people should know what they're getting beforehand, like with any other substance."
'It's just helping people'
While his business model has been mapped out, Martin is still looking for a commercial rental space, he says.
Though he isn't sure when he'll be able to open — and though he also fully expects police to arrest him and close down the shop once he does — he's adamant he'll follow through on his plan.
"It's just helping people," he said.
"I don't feel like I'm me unless I'm doing that."
With files from Francis Plourde of Radio-Canada