“They talk, we die.”
Those words, spoken last week by Laura Shaver in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, summed up the message she was there to deliver.
On February 9, Vancouver’s Drug User Liberation Front, together with the BC Association of People on Opiate Maintenance, held a giveaway of measured and tested doses of meth, cocaine and heroin.
The giveaway was planned to coincide with a grim announcement by the BC Coroners office: 2,224 British Columbians died of overdoses last year. Overdose deaths had hovered in the low hundreds until 2015, when shocking yearly increases led to the current record high number. In 2016, BC’s provincial health officer declared a public health emergency related to opioid overdoses.
In the hour before the event kicked off, people streamed into the headquarters of Shaver’s organization, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), asking to be added to the list. There were elders using scooters and walkers, younger people in rain gear and hoodies, and a couple who had arrived from Abbotsford, a city just outside Metro Vancouver’s suburbs, for a chance to access safe narcotics.
But the Drug User Liberation Front could only sign up 15 people, all of them with prescriptions for opiate maintenance. The list closed almost as quickly as it opened, and many were turned away.
As the event got started, the mood was somber and combative, the stakes high. A row of TV cameras pointed toward the microphone in front of Shaver.
“I don’t have enough time to mention all the names of the people I lost,” said Shaver. “And I’m not just talking about people, I’m talking about people that know my birthday, my dog’s name, my family’s name, stuff like that.” To Shaver’s left hung a bright red banner with 2224 written on it in stark black letters; behind her, a yellow poster with 26 handwritten names of friends lost to overdose.
“Everybody says these are preventable deaths,” she said. “So then there should be nobody dying today.”
Regulated, legalized supply is the way to prevent further deaths
The overdose crisis in the US and Canada that has killed record numbers of people is directly related to the toxic drug supply. Those who gathered at VANDU on February 9 are sure that the only way out of the crisis is a safe supply.
“If I go down the block and buy a 10 paper of heroin, of down, I do not know what is in it, ” said Eris Nyx, who is an organizer with DULF. “I do not know whether or not it is contaminated with benzodiazepines. I do not know whether or not it is contaminated with fentanyl. And I do not know whether or not it has drywall dust or rat poop or God knows what.”
Nyx’s message was loud and clear: we need regulation.
“Maybe you’re seeking euphoria. Maybe you’re trying to cope with trauma that has been dealt, both historically or otherwise,” said Nyx, her voice carrying a note of anger. “But we know that if you choose to use drugs, that should not be a death sentence.”
Watch our video report: Why are activists and a city councillor handing out free cocaine and heroin in Vancouver?
DULF and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) are seeking to pilot a Compassion Club, which would allow them to distribute a safe supply of narcotics to approximately 200 people who are already using drugs. In August, DULF requested an exemption to Section 56 of Health Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would decriminalize participation in the pilot.
Health Canada has yet to respond to DULF’s request or to meet with its members, and users say the BC government’s Opioid Agonist Treatment and so-called “safe supply” programs are “rigid, punitive and have failed to keep pace with this crisis.”
Drug toxicity is now the second leading cause of death in BC, surpassed only by cancers. “It is long past time to end the chaos and devastation in our communities resulting from the flourishing illicit drug market—and to ensure, on an urgent basis, access across the province to a safe, reliable regulated drug supply,” said BC’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe in a release.
Safe supply activists risk arrest, demand new political leadership
The lack of meaningful response to the overdose crisis has led DULF, VANDU and the BC Association of People on Opiate Maintenance (BCAPOM) to call for the resignation of the BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and the Federal Minister of Health.
The February 9 action was the fifth of its kind organized by DULF. Manuel Axel Strain from the Musqueam nation opened the event with a reflection on how the overdose crisis is connected to genocide. “The amount of Indigenous people that we’ve lost is far too much; far too difficult,” they said.
They were followed by drug user activists, who described the event as an example of how their community is leading the response to thousands of needless deaths in the province. A massive black coffin was carried in and set beside them, later, a poem written for the occasion was read. After the speeches, everyone stood for a moment of silence in memory of those who have died from overdose.
Finally, in the back corner, crammed between the coffin and a smaller office, 35 doses of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin—which were given away. Each weighed a tenth of a gram and was tested via mass spectrometry, FTIR spectrometry, and immunoassay, according to organizers. Everyone on the list was given two matchbox sized containers with the drug of their choice.
In order to secure the purest narcotics possible, DULF organizers use cryptocurrency to buy on the dark web. They estimate the cost of the most recent giveaway to have been around $1000. If drug laws were enforced by police, they could face up to 10 years in prison.
On the wall above the table where the doses were handed out hung a poster charting VANDU’s enduring importance in protecting the city’s drug users. After forming in 1997, the group arranged needle exchanges and opened their own safe consumption sites. For years, VANDU members were criminalized for these activities; there were even police raids. But in the face of mounting pressure and the good example set by drug user activists, the BC government accepted public health guidelines, and the feds granted an exemption that allowed Insite, North America’s first supervised drug injection site, to open legally in 2003.
After the doses were handed out and the media scrum died down, I approached John, the man responsible for ensuring each person on the list got what they wanted. He’s a supervisor at VANDU who described his job as helping members out and making sure they don’t overdose in the back room.
I asked him how he sees the push for a Compassion Club for drug users in Vancouver. “We have had tremendous success here in Vancouver and there’s no there’s no reason why we cannot be successful everywhere else you know… We’ve shown that this model can work, we’ve shown that it can be successful,” he said. “Why can’t we… Why can’t we save more lives? Why is that a problem?”