The province of British Columbia is at the heart of Canada’s drug overdose crisis, now in its fifth year of public health emergency.
Last month, a report from the BC Coroners Service found that 160 people had died from overdoses in the month of May alone, an average of 5.2 people per day. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said 851 people lost their lives due to overdose in the first five months of 2021 – a new record for that five-month period.
Poisonous drugs are fueling the crisis, especially the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
This led the city of Vancouver to formally seek an exemption from federal drug laws to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize possession of a small amount of drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine. The proposal, dubbed the “Vancouver Model,” lists thresholds for 15 common substances, with the city saying this would lead to a dramatic reduction in police seizures.
However, activists say not only that they were not consulted on the proposal, but that it is simply not enough.
Anger this week over the decriminalization proposal culminated at an event hosted by the Drug User Liberation Front (Dulf), a Vancouver-based activist group, organized outside the Vancouver Police Department.
With the help of City Councilor Jean Swanson, the group distributed free samples of clean and controlled drugs in clearly labeled boxes, indicating what was in the drugs and by what percentage. They spent around $ 3,000 on a crowdsourcing campaign to buy the drugs from “trusted dealers.”
Dulf has already organized similar events across town, such as a public call for a more regulatory framework to tackle illicit drugs.
While police say they were unaware of the drug distribution at the event, Jeremy Kalicum, organizer of Dulf, says the group is working closely with police and informs them of each planned protest. . Kalicum says that includes informing them that drugs would be distributed.
It’s a point that police are now disputing, however, after members of the public raised concerns about the event in the days after it was held.
“We were aware of the planned demonstration, but I don’t know if we were aware of the drug distribution,” Constable Tania Visintin said. “There have been a number of concerned citizens who have reached out. We are currently reviewing the circumstances. “
Dulf distributed the drugs to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Tenant Overdose Response Organisers, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, and the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War, who then provided them to their members during the the event. Staff from the Overdose Prevention Society were present.
Swanson joined the team after being approached by organizers she has known for a decade in the Downtown Eastside, one of the city’s poorest areas, before her career as a city councilor.
“Most advisers probably wouldn’t go [drugs] but they support a secure supply, ”she said.
Swanson says the government has “ignored” rights groups and that the current bill is “reaper.”
“They are introducing it in a very bureaucratic way and it will not benefit anyone.
“What our little action has shown is that if a few groups with little money can do it, then a government with billions of dollars can do it. “
Swanson has been disappointed by the government’s lack of action, as drug-related deaths have surpassed lives lost during the Covid pandemic in British Columbia.
“Why don’t the powers that be do everything they can for people who use drugs like they did for Covid? “
Eris Nyx, harm reduction activist and one of the event’s organizers, said their regulatory model works to provide people who use drugs with safe products.
“We are not criminals. We have an unpredictable and volatile drug market that is caused by the drug ban, ”she said.
“It kills our friends, it kills our families, it kills our neighbors… we have to regulate. “
Nyx says drug dealers often supply drugs cut with different harmful substances, such as fentanyl, and a user often has no idea what they are buying. A regulatory framework would put an end to that.
She also believes that a “peer support model” involving health care and better education for drug addicts is the way forward, saying the “current system that involves police, courts and prosecution” must be dismantled.
“When you have seen the things that we have seen, there is nothing you can do but try to prevent all these deaths. And we think that’s the right way to go.
A growing body of evidence shows that decriminalizing drugs is an effective way to reduce the rate of overdose.
Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001. A decade later, the number of fatal opioid overdoses had quintupled.
In addition to BC’s possession decriminalization 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 it is not accessible to those “most at risk”, doctors are “afraid” of prescribing a safe supply, and those who prescribe are “violently attacked by their peers.”
He says decriminalization will not reduce overdoses because the supply chain will remain the same.
Vince Tao, a member of Vandu’s staff, does not mince words about the decriminalization measures proposed by the province, calling them “a premise of bulls ***”.
Vandu’s mantra is “nothing about us without us,” Tao said, and the authorities had not consulted with them in crafting the proposal.
Vandu board member Jon Braithwaite, who is also a drug addict, said incarcerations and hospital visits would naturally decrease with full decriminalization, as people would use clean drugs, clean utensils and would not have to depend on toxic substances. He says many of his friends have been jailed for illegal drug use, and these are people who “don’t deserve it”.
Another event with free drug samples will take place on August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day.
“We’re going to continue until something changes, that’s our only option at this point,” Nyx said.