On August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, activists in Vancouver handed out free safe supply of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. The action was to raise awareness about how prohibiting drugs puts people at harm, but it was also to save lives—everyone who used the supply distributed that day knew exactly what they were using, and was briefly safe from any undesired adulterants, such as fentanyl.
The Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) organized the action, partnering with other local groups including Moms Stop the Harm. The day’s events included a press conference, protest march and block party.
VANDU and DULF are familiar with giving out small quantities of tested drugs—they have conducted similar actions since June 2020. Earlier this summer, they even earned the support of a Vancouver City Councilwoman who helped hand out free heroin.
“The goal is to show how community-based and -led safe supply is necessary for ending the overdose crisis,” VANDU organizer Vince Tao told Filter. “This is in response to multiple initiatives from our government around what they [pass off as] safe supply and decriminalization, which VANDU and our allies have deep criticism of.”
As Filter previously reported, British Columbia’s provincial government took emergency measures during the pandemic to provide more access to legal pharmaceutical drugs—like diacetylmorphine, or medical-grade heroin—to people diagnosed with substance use disorder.
“Full decriminalization means no thresholds or limits.”
British Columbia authorizes these drugs on an individual basis through a doctor’s prescription. Though the intention is to provide a safe supply to users of state-banned drugs that are frequently adulterated, putting the drug supply in the hands of doctors only—rather than drug users and on-the-ground harm reductionists—can exclude lower-income, rural and other marginalized people who don’t have adequate health care access.
Activists also criticize the fact that a Vancouver city effort to decriminalize drug possession still imposes criminal penalties for quantities of drugs small enough to be carried in a pocket.
“Full decriminalization means no thresholds or limits, to arbitrarily say who is a criminal or not depending on how much you have in your pocket when you’re stopped by the cops,” said Tao. “If anything, we want to tell the cops to fuck off and leave us alone. This is our neighborhood.”
2020 was the deadliest year on record for drug overdose in British Columbia, with more than 1,700 lives lost—close to double the number in 2019.
What We Mean by “Safe Supply”
Consider a legal drug like alcohol: If you go to a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine, you know exactly what you are drinking. You know where the wine came from, whether it’s red or white, how long it was aged and the alcohol potency. It’s all regulated and written on the label.
But with state-banned drugs like heroin, most people can’t be sure what they’re taking. A bag may contain a simple white powder. You can’t tell just by looking at it how much, if any, of it is really heroin. You have to rely only on the word of your seller—and they themselves may not know, as they had to rely on the word of the person who sold it to them.
Checking drugs is one way to use more safely. Different tools like fentanyl strips, colored reagent kits and more advanced lab equipment can help tell people what’s in their drugs. Strips and reagents are useful but not perfect—they inform you of which substances your drugs may contain, but not of the quantities of different substances present. In a heroin baggie, fentanyl can be unequally dispersed, and you could miss it if you only test a small sample. Drug-checking tools are also not broadly accessible to the people who need them most.
The Vancouver activists used Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry to check the drugs they intended to distribute (a technology certainly not available to the vast majority of drug users). They purchased their drugs from a dark web supplier using cryptocurrency, which for those who have the means is usually a much safer method than buying off the street.
“We don’t want to medicalize this program.”
All of these barriers explain why DULF and VANDU are demanding that the Vancouver and British Columbia governments provide a safe drug supply. “We are thinking through a compassion club model,” said Tao.
The same day as the action, DULF and VANDU formally submitted a letter to Canada’s federal health department, requesting legal permission to operate such a model. If granted an exemption to criminal drug law, the two organizations will purchase, store, test and distribute state-banned drugs to local drug user groups, while also maintaining basic records and security measures. They expect that buying drugs in bulk as a collective will drive down costs and allow members to get the drugs they want at a fair price.
“It’s user-led, -obtained and -distributed,” said Tao. “We don’t want to medicalize this program. We want to ideally have states produce the clean drugs because they have the production means to make them.”
“Until then, we’ll be using illicit means to obtain drugs, check them and distribute them ourselves.”
Photograph via Drug User Liberation Front/Facebook.