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Drug user compassion groups in B.C. see success in safe supply distribution

Despite a rejection from Health Canada, a B.C.-based organization has sold 200 grams of safe substances that have led to zero overdoses.

A Vancouver-based group says it’s been illegally running a cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine compassion club for the last month with no reported deaths or overdoses.

Speaking during a virtual press conference on Wednesday, International Overdose Awareness Day, Erin Nyx with the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) said regulating the illicit supply is the answer to stopping deaths. In B.C., more than 10,000 British Columbians have died of an overdose since 2016, the year the province declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

“These people are our friends, our community members, people we love, people we care about very deeply and we're losing them every day,” Nyx, one of DULF’s co-founders, told reporters.

Working alongside Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), DULF submitted a Section 56 exemption request in order to provide drug users with a safe supply of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. 

Health Canada rejected the request on July 29, 2022.

“However, we have been running the club illegally for one month and this day, Aug. 31, celebrates our one-month anniversary of running the club successfully without overdose and without death,” said Nyx. 

According to DULF, they have sold 200 grams of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine without causing one overdose. 

“We have the solution and our answer, which does not require anything beyond existing resources which are available all across the province, could have been expanded years ago,” said Nyx. 

On Aug. 26, DULF and VANDU submitted a notice of application to the Supreme Court of Canada to have Health Canada’s decision reviewed. Nyx says that they are imploring the court to push the approval of their Section 56 exemption request. The exemption means that adults possessing small amounts of illicit substances will not be criminally charged. 

“We have an answer that can be expanded across the province immediately with sanctioning from Health Canada. And we need to be permitted to do this. We are not criminals. We are simply those who care about the people we love,” said Nyx . 

Part of B.C.’s solution is a temporary exemption to decriminalize drug possession starting in January of 2023 and ending in January 2026. 

According to the provincial government website, the exemption is not legalization. However, adults who use 2.5 grams or less of certain illicit substances for personal use will no longer be arrested. 

Tanis Oldenburger, executive director and co-founder of Mountainside Harm Reduction Society, says that the issue is one of supply chain and that decriminalization will not get the results needed. 

“I think they're just doing that so that at the end of it, they can take it away again and not have to actually come up with a permanent solution. And that really bothers me. It's kind of like trickery or something,” she said. 

Dave Hamm from VANDU says politicians need to stand up and start doing their jobs. 

“Drug user groups are the only ones in their community that are going to be able to help with this compassion club sale model and we need each community to have this,” he said. 

At the core of their solution is regulating drug supply to ensure that safe substances are accessible for those who use them. 

Dylan Griffith, founder of Kootenay Insurrection for Safe Supply, says at least seven people have died in Nelson as a result of consuming unregulated substances in the last four or five weeks.

He stressed the need to support groups who provide a safe and regulated supply. 

“We're conducting a PR campaign to plead with our community to let us save the lives of our friends, family members and neighbours,” he said. “We shouldn't have to take these risks or take on this burden alone. Drug user groups doing this work should be funded to do so, provided the physical space to do so and granted exemptions from the relevant sections of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to enable us to do this work without federal arrest.” 

He says that preventing communities from doing this work during a declared public health emergency is “unethical, immoral and quite frankly, unforgivable.”

Health Canada could not immediately be reached for comment, but a statement commemorating Overdose Awareness Day says 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, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Carolyn Bennett, minister of mental health and addictions, say in the joint statement. 

"Still more needs to be done to protect the health and safety of Canadians," the statement says. 

"We remain committed to reducing stigma and continuing to work with all levels of government, people with lived and living experience of substance use, stakeholders, and organizations in communities across Canada to help prevent overdose, save lives, and help all people in Canada live their healthiest lives."

With a file from Canadian Press

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