The Drug User Liberation Front, a Vancouver-based activist group, made a serious statement on June 23. During a protest in the city’s Downtown Eastside, they gave out free, checked and illegal drugs to their community. They did this in response to British Columbia’s monthly overdose death numbers reaching a then–record high of 170 in May. Over 200 people are estimated to have received small quantities of drugs, including opium and cocaine, at the event.
Given the dangerous adulteration of the drug supply, exacerbated by the pandemic, there’s a good chance that one or two lives were saved that day. All the same, wider circumstances and the structural oppression of drug users saw June reach an even higher death count in the province, as Guy Felicella of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) recently described for Filter.
According to a press release posted on the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) Facebook page, “These drugs have been tested via FTIR [Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy] spectrometry and immunoassay and are free of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, benzodiazepines and many other harmful adulterants.”
“As far as I know, police didn’t even speak to the organizers, and people received their drugs without being hassled.”
The newly formed group raised the critical point of the lack of safe supply available for most people who use heroin or cocaine throughout Canada. There are some initiatives to expand access to diacetylmorphine (“pharmaceutical heroin”), but these are unlikely to be sustainable on a large scale until it is produced domestically, rather than imported.
Fair Price Pharma—led by Dr. Perry Kendall, British Columbia’s first medical health officer, and Dr. Martin Schecter, a lead investigator on the North American Opioid Medicine Initiative—is one company proposing to produce injectable diacetylmorphine domestically. But people are dying while that process continues.
Gus Fowler was one of those who received a small quantity of safe supply from DULF’s community action. “I’m not sure how much cocaine and opium they handed out,” he told Filter. “But I received 0.1 gram of cocaine that was cut with about 20 percent phenacetin. As far as I know, police didn’t even speak to the organizers, and people received their drugs without being hassled.”
Cocaine supplied at the event. Photograph by Gus Fowler.
Phenacetin, a common cutting agent, can cause long-term health risks. But it’s no fentanyl. The group was transparent about the contents of all drugs distributed, handing out cards stating what they were tested for.
Fowler, who was a supporter and consumer, but not an organizer of the event, is a FTIR Technician at Get Your Drugs Tested, a website that offers both in-person and mail-in drug checking—the kind of service that people who sell drugs, as well as those who use them, should be utilizing, especially in these times.
“The call for safe supply has existed for decades, and there has been limited implementation” he said. “The implementation relies on drug users to go to a physician, tell them about their problematic drug use, and get a prescription for one of only a few substances.”
The drugs available in this way in Canada include hydromorphone—suited to some people who use heroin, but not to those of us who use fentanyl, for example, or cocaine.
Fowler added some context for the DULF event, saying, “This method of civil disobedience was an important step in legalizing cannabis showing to the public that legal drug use is not a threat to the public.” He was referencing the compassion or buyers clubs that changed the way people look at cannabis consumption (some already exist, too, for heroin).
Canada has now federally legalized cannabis—although that hasn’t come without cost to communities that formerly made their livelihood off providing the same services and products.
“Safer supply can be implemented through multiple pathways including buyers clubs.”
While conducted only on a small scale, DULF’s action pointed the way to a better world—one where safe supply isn’t in the hands of the government, but of communities. The reallocation of police funds would be one good way to set up experts on the ground to create various forms of buyers club—and when I say experts, I prioritize people who use drugs and have been doing this work since long before COVID-19 or the arrival of fentanyl.
Guy Felicella was one of many co-authors on BCCSU’s March report, Risk Mitigation: In the Context of Dual Public Health Emergencies, about the intersection of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis. He has been instrumental in pushing for progressive, sensible safe-supply solutions, while advocating for taking control out of the hands of healthcare providers. He was in attendance at DULF’s rally.
“The Drug User Liberation Front showed that safer supply can be implemented through multiple pathways including buyers clubs,” he told Filter. “Drug users were handing out free cocaine and opium. There was a lineup of over 200 people waiting patiently to receive their free drugs.”
Felicella described an atmosphere of surprise and amusement at what was happening that day, practically in front of the police—although no one was forgetting about drug-related deaths and the failed system that causes them. “People were excited and were shocked,” he said. But they were also aware of the autonomy that a model like this could offer. “It gave drug users hope that this could one day happen.”
We need to get to the point where this is an everyday occurrence.
Last year, BCCSU produced another report, Heroin Compassion Clubs, subtitled: “A cooperative model to reduce opioid overdose deaths and disrupt organized crime’s role in fentanyl, money laundering and housing unaffordability.”
As Travis Lupick described for Filter, the report detailed different models of compassion clubs, including member-driven purchasing cooperatives, along with potential benefits. Backed by the evidence presented in that report, we need more people to be starting these clubs, with or without official sanction.
Knowing some of the organizers of the Drug User Liberation Front, I feel sure they will find a way to continue to provide a safer alternative of tested drugs, regardless of the government’s position or the threat of arrest.
Over 200 people who use drugs received a safer, tested substance that day in June. This in itself reduces harm. But we need to get to the point where this is an everyday occurrence.
Top photograph of people in attendance at the DULF event by Guy Felicella.