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Vancouver police explain why city councillor wasn’t arrested for distributing heroin, cocaine

Jean Swanson participated in July 14 protest to advocate for ‘safe supply’ of drugs
Coun. Jean Swanson handed out small samples of heroin and other illegal drugs to drug users July 14 as part of a protest, but was not arrested. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Vancouver police have explained why they didn’t arrest city councillor Jean Swanson in July for handing out heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to drug users as part of a protest to push governments to increase the “safe supply” of drugs.

The explanation is contained in a report that went before the Vancouver Police Board Thursday that was in response to a complaint from a citizen — whose name wasn’t disclosed — about Swanson’s actions on July 14 in the Downtown Eastside.

“While the VPD does not condone drug trafficking and, in fact, does arrest for drug trafficking, it is recognized that the actions of the other protesters were not motivated by profit and were not the actions of organized crime groups, but rather, were grounded in harm reduction and raising awareness to the need for urgent action to the overdose crisis,” the report said.

“Although the VPD did not take any additional enforcement actions in relation to this particular protest, such as making any arrests, that does not preclude any future police actions from being taken in future similar incidents. Given the totality of the circumstances as they relate to this event, including the need to maintain public peace during the protest, officers used their discretion and chose not to take enforcement action.”

The report doesn’t name Swanson but she confirmed to Glacier Media this week that she was the subject of the complaint. The board agreed Thursday with the police’s recommendation to conclude its review of the complaint.

'Dark web'

Swanson said the protest was organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the Drug Users Liberation Front (DULF). Police acknowledged in their report that the illegal drugs, which Swanson said were obtained via “the dark web,” were not distributed for profit.

“I appreciate that I wasn’t arrested — that’s good,” she said, noting the small samples of drugs were tested and labeled before they were given to users. “I don’t think it would have been right to arrest me because we were handing out safe drugs — not dangerous drugs — and it was a protest.”

Swanson said she participated in the protest to help draw attention to the need for a safe supply of drugs to combat the unprecedented number of drug deaths in Vancouver and across the province.

“Six people a day are dying in B.C. of an overdose, and that’s six people too many and all those deaths are preventable,” she said. “If you go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of vodka, it tells you what the proof of the alcohol is. You take it home and pour it into a glass and know it’s vodka and know it isn’t arsenic or something else.”

Vancouver and the rest of the province remain entrenched in an overdose crisis that saw 1,734 people die last year, with 413 of those deaths recorded in the city. The most recent statistics from the BC Coroners Service showed 286 people died of an overdose in Vancouver between Jan. 1 and July 31 of this year.

The majority of the deaths for several years running have involved fentanyl, the deadly synthetic narcotic that doctors, police and harm reduction advocates have pointed to as the prime reason for so many lives lost since 2014 — 7,647 as of July 31, 2021.

Though fentanyl has tainted the drug supply, the drug has also been sought after by users searching for a high greater than normally experienced with heroin, according to users interviewed by Glacier Media in recent years.

Some “safe supply” programs currently exist in Vancouver where drug users can obtain prescription heroin, fentanyl and painkillers such as hydromorphone, but the drugs are of a medical grade and access to them is limited.

Compassion clubs

Earlier this month, Swanson successfully moved a motion at council to push for a compassion club model that would give drug-using members over the age of 18 access to clean and tested heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

The motion included the stipulation that a club receive its supply from “a legal regulated source that does not benefit organized crime.” The motion builds on the push from the B.C. Centre for Substance Use in 2019 to open heroin compassion clubs in Vancouver and across the province.

Swanson’s inspiration for the motion came from VANDU and DULF, which have lobbied for the model and recently requested an exemption from the federal government under the country’s drug laws to set up the clubs.

Meanwhile, both groups continue to distribute “safe drugs” and hold protests in the city.

The push for a compassion club model is supported by the First Nations Health Authority, B.C. Centre for Substance Use, Moms Stop the Harm and Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer of Vancouver Coastal Health, who reiterated that support in an update to city council Thursday on the overdose and COVID-19 crises.

“We cannot have our physicians and nurse practitioners as gatekeepers of the response [to the crisis] and we need to support peers and users who have a compassion club and regulatory model,” said Daly, emphasizing the need for drugs to be tested and programs evaluated.

“We’re going to have to do bold things that we may not feel comfortable with.”

Added Daly: “If we had a contaminated food supply that was making people ill, we would pull that supply off the market and replace it with a supply that was not contaminated. We haven’t done the most basic thing to address this crisis.”

Deputy Police Chief Fiona Wilson told council Thursday that the VPD is on record of supporting a safe supply of drugs, but is opposed to the "dark web" being the source of the drugs.

"The Vancouver Police Department certainly supports the notion of safe supply," Wilson said.

"We've been very open about that. In fact, I believe we were one of the first departments in the country to advocate for safe supply. It's the way that it's rolled out that I think we need to have further discussion on."