Over the last six years, the vast majority of overdose deaths in British Columbia have been driven by impurities in street drugs
A Canadian advocacy group has pledged to continue selling cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin to users, in defiance of a federal government order to stop, arguing that their plan is the only way to save lives amid a nationwide drugs crisis.
Over the last six years, more than 10,000 people have died from drug overdoses in the province of British Columbia, with the vast majority of deaths driven by impurities in street drugs.
“We’ve just been driven to this point out of desperation,” Eris Nyx of the volunteer-run Drug Users Liberation Front, told the Guardian.
The group says it plans to fight Canada’s public health agency after Ottawa rejected its proposal to supply pure drugs to users.
Her group, alongside the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, recently asked Heath Canada for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act allowing them to procure and sell drugs.
The application had the support of Vancouver city council, Vancouver Coastal Health, the BC Centre on Substance Use and the First Nations Health Authority. Given the intensity of the overdose crisis, the group asked for a grant to purchase drugs from the dark web, which they could test and then distribute to users.
But Health Canada rejected the request in late July.
“Health Canada cannot approve your proposed model of purchasing drugs over the dark web because of the associated public health and safety risks,” wrote Jennifer Saxe, head the agency’s controlled substances directorate.
Among other requirements, Saxe advised the group it needed to indicate a clear plan of distribution and a legal supplier of drugs.
“The government basically gave us the middle finger and said we’re accessing the illicit drug market – while simultaneously providing no substitute,” said Nyx, adding that it was incredible difficult to access legal heroin and cocaine.
“You need the exemption that they’re denying us. And we’re very explicit in our application – we would prefer to use the licit market. We’re not criminals, we’re just people that care about our community,” she said.
Because their bid for an exemption was unsuccessful, Health Canada reminded DULF they were breaking the law by distributing drugs. But so far, no arrests have been made.
“I signed an affidavit with the federal government telling them I’m trafficking drugs. And no one’s coming to get us,” said Nyx. “But at the same time, no one’s coming to help us either.”
Nyx, who previously worked frontline worker, has seen the crisis steal away close friends.
“Years ago, when I was working at the time as a frontline worker in a shelter, we would see one overdose every three months or so. Recently, it hit 10 overdoses a shift. That’s how bad things are and it’s only continued to worsen.”
Local, provincial and federal governments have all expressed a desire solve a crisis that cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines.
The federal government has signed off on a pilot project that would decriminalize – but not legalize – the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs in British Columbia, including possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. The program is set to roll out in January 2023.
There are also safe injection sites in Vancouver, which give a space for users to consume drugs with the resources to test drugs and reverse an overdose.
But DULF sees a lack of regulation in the drug market as the culprit for overdose deaths.
“You have a totally deregulated market, which pushes it to where the cheapest, strongest substance is going to be what’s on hand,” said Nyx. “Prohibition does the exact same thing alcohol prohibition does, it increases the power of organized crime, and makes drugs more toxic.”
In recent years, fentanyl has been added to drugs, tainting the supply and leaving users unsure what they are consuming.
In the 200 grams of drugs DULF has handed out in sold in the last month, all of which went to known drug users, the contents of the packages have been clearly labelled following rigorous testing. One reads: “100% methamphetamine. No cut. No buff.” Another, for heroin, lists 80% diacetylmorphine, 10% 6-Monoacetylmorphine and 10% caffeine as the ingredients.
“If you label people’s drugs such they clearly indicate what a person is putting into their body, people won’t be overdosing. No one takes more than they intend to take. Because they know what they’re putting into their body and they know their people know their bodies. If you go to a bar, you don’t ask for a whole bottle of tequila and slam it all back.”
The drugs, purchases through donations from community members, are sold at cost. In the month they have operated the pilot model, there have been zero overdoses, she says.
The group plans to appeal the decision with the country’s supreme court, arguing Health Canada’s refusal to provide an exception violates two clauses Canada’s charter of rights and freedoms: the right to life and a right to equal protection under the law.
As their fight winds its way through the courts, DULF has no intention of stopping as long as the program appears to be working.
“The problem is so bad, we need experimental solutions,” said Nyx. “And we have a model that doesn’t kill people.”