A man holds coca paste, a crude extract of the coca leaf, in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander Department, Colombia, on August 20, 2022. Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images)
A Canadian company says it's investing in a future that involves legal cocaine and the wider push to provide people with a safe supply of regulated drugs. Safe Supply Streaming Co., which was listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange last month, is a merchant bank that says its dedicated to investing in businesses that are part of the “safe supply ecosystem,” including ones developing legal cocaine and decocainized (non cocaine containing) coca leaf wellness products, drug testing strips, and addiction treatment centers.
But drug policy experts told VICE News the new ventures appear to be piggybacking off drug user activism without supporting grassroots efforts to end the war on drugs.Safe Supply President Ronan Levy, who co-founded struggling psychedelics company Field Trip Health, said Safe Supply’s mission is to “save lives” at a time when the war on drugs is failing, and progressive drug policy experiments are taking hold. Both Oregon and British Columbia have decriminalized low level drug possession and Oregon and Colorado have legalized psychedelics in therapeutic settings. “Had we been able to use safe, natural alternatives like cannabis and poppy as effective medicines that had been used for hundreds of years prior to the war on drugs, we probably wouldn't have been in a world where we needed synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” Levy told VICE News. Levy said Safe Supply is not connected to any safe supply projects that currently exist; in Canada, for example, the government funds programs that provide people addicted to opioids with pharmaceutical-grade heroin and fentanyl as an alternative to the toxic street supply. Earlier this year, Bern, Switzerland approved a pilot project to start legal sales of cocaine for personal use. Levy said some of the companies Safe Supply is investing in, including Harbour Solutions, which plans to produce legal cocaine and coca leaf products, will be well positioned to provide cocaine for projects like Bern’s if and when they take place.
As for how the company is saving lives, since it’s not linked to any safe supply projects, he said changes in policy in part comes from changing people’s perceptions about drugs. He pointed to the normalization of CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that became ubiquitous in the wellness industry, as one example of how that can happen. “People were comfortable with CBD and then they got comfortable with the rest of the cannabis,” he said. However, two drug policy experts told VICE News they’re concerned the ventures are a cynical market play that is co-opting drug user activism. “It's just like, what… are you doing? How dare you?,” said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, who wrote a book on how to regulate stimulants. “(Safe Supply), that's language of activists—frontline harm reduction activists trying to save lives by getting safe drugs instead of poisoned, toxic, illegal drugs specifically around the fentanyl crisis. So you've got a language and a concept which has been developed by civil society and activists and it's being co-opted by a corporate entity as an investment opportunity.” Gillian Kolla, a public health researcher at the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said the concept of safe supply was developed by people who use drugs and have been fighting to shed light on the harms of prohibition.
She said it feels “really gross” that commercial enterprises appear to be “trying to profit off of the crisis of drug related toxicity deaths that we have in Canada without any connections to the community.” Kolla said there are inherent dangers in the commercialization of psychoactive substances for profit, pointing to the tobacco and alcohol industries as examples where unfettered advertising drove up usage rates. She said not-for-profit compassion club models for drugs need more support, but are often penalized. Recently, Vancouver police arrested two founders of the Drug User Liberation Front, an organization that was providing tested cocaine, heroin, and meth to drug users in the city at cost. Levy said he couldn’t comment on the Drug User Liberation Front and that Safe Supply isn’t formally connected to any activist groups. “Where people are acting sensibly and responsibly… we’ll certainly spiritually be supportive of their efforts,” he said. He rejected the idea that the company is co-opting the safe supply movement, asserting that there are different ways to move the needle, from advocacy to building infrastructure. “I am a capitalist, but I'm not one of the hardcore ones. I do believe that in order for any of these programs to be effective, they have to be run properly, which means you need the people who have grassroots experience and the knowledge of working in the communities, working very closely and in tandem with people who know how to successfully scale and operate large scale operations.”
David Craig, chief executive officer of Harbour, said the company has partnered with a government-run coca leaf producer in Peru, and plans to facilitate the supply of cocaine to pharmaceutical companies for medical purposes as well as develop food and beverages that use decocainized parts of the coca leaf. Cocaine is used legally for medical procedures in the United Kingdom and some other countries. Craig said the company isn’t necessarily going to lobby the government to end cocaine prohibition, but if that happens, “we can receive 98 percent pure cocaine.” While he expects other companies to enter the space, he said Harbour’s agreement with the Peruvian producer gives it a “three to five year head start on any competitors.”Rolles said legal cocaine ventures could be a new iteration of the cannabis green rush—where many people got rich, but a lot of businesses ultimately collapsed. Psychedelics have seen a similar boom, though Rolles believes that bubble “is going to burst at some point imminently.” He said coca leaf products like energy drinks and cosmetics already exist, but they’ve never really established a market outside of the Andes. “That’s not to say that decocainized products couldn’t become the next big thing,” he added. “There’s always a next big thing in the wellness industry, like CBD, or acai berries, or ginkgo biloba, or whatever bollocks someone decides to market next.”