On August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, drug-user activists in British Columbia formally petitioned the Canadian federal government to operate buyer’s clubs for heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine without fear of arrest. Amid historic drug overdose deaths in BC—overwhelmingly attributable to the adulteration of unregulated supply—they want to protect people by offering a reliable source of checked drugs.
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) submitted an open letter to Health Canada, the national public health department. It requests a formal exemption from federal criminal drug law—specifically, under Section 56 (I) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA)—so that no one is prosecuted for possession or trafficking over a “compassion club” model to purchase, test and distribute drugs to members without profit.
“The DULF Fulfillment Center and Compassion Club model is saving lives right now,” the letter states, “and will save more if we are permitted to continue our work with federal authorization.” It describes the mission of DULF, a coalition of people who use drugs and their allies, as having “historically meant operating episodic [cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine] compassion clubs.”
“We are prepared to undertake such action, and hope that you will support our efforts. Lives depend on it.”
DULF and VANDU have also on several occasions organized direct actions in which they handed out small quantities of free, checked drugs through direct actions in the Vancouver area. They did this on the day they sent the open letter.
The compassion club model is supported by researchers. In 2019, the BC Centre on Substance Use released a white paper calling for heroin compassion clubs. It noted that the model is “inspired by cannabis compassion clubs and buyers clubs, both of which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the AIDS epidemic.”
DULF purchases heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine from dark web sellers. “Purchasing online has the benefit of reducing interactions and potential violence from buying in-person, and due to the nature of these darknet markets, vendors would remain anonymous,” the letter states. It expresses the hope that the government itself will begin purchasing the drugs and sell them to DULF through pharmaceutical sources.
The group would then store these drugs in a secure, double-locked site, and keep close inventory records of when drugs are added or dispensed. Importantly, organizers would test the drugs themselves using FTIR spectroscopy technology, plus fentanyl and benzodiazepine strips. FTIR is a sophisticated drug-checking tool, unavailable to most drug users, to which DULF has access through the BC Centre on Substance Use.
After confirming purity, DULF would package and label the drugs to clearly identify the content. “In a similar fashion to tobacco labeling, the packaging is also plain,” the letter continues, “with warnings of the highly addictive nature of the substances and impairing effects, and with warnings to not operate any vehicles or machinery.”
DULF would then distribute the supply to local drug-user groups. The groups would in turn purchase the drugs and sell them to their eligible members. All members of participating drug-user groups would have to be over 18 years of age.
It will represent a historic milestone in international efforts to roll back the drug war. More importantly, it will have an immediate impact on safety.
In order to pay for drugs and other costs under this system, DULF and the smaller drug-user groups might choose to charge membership fees or raise donations. At the same time, according to the letter, “with increased consumer purchasing power through the collective it is expected that costs will be drastically reduced and the financial harms of the war on drugs on people who use drugs will be drastically reduced.”
The letter requests a decision from Health Canada by October 15. If DULF and VANDU’s request is granted, it will represent a historic milestone in international efforts to roll back the drug war. More importantly, it will have an immediate impact on the safety of compassion club members.
“We are prepared to undertake such action,” the letter states, “and hope that you will support our efforts and provide the necessary federal exemptions needed to operate our program in a sanctioned manner. Lives depend on it.”
Photograph by DULF via Facebook