In response to British Columbia’s record-high 170 fatal overdoses last month, a group of drug reform activists handed out free doses of fentanyl-free cocaine and opium Tuesday afternoon in Vancouver.
The newly-formed Drug User Liberation Front marched in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—considered Canada’s poorest neighbourhood—as it issued a list of demands to the province and gave out small vials of cocaine and opium, which had been tested for fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, benzodiazepines, and other adulterants.
The group’s calls for action include expanding the access to prescription narcotics in the province, providing a safe supply of cocaine and injectable heroin, covering injectable hydromorphone under B.C.’s prescription drugs plan, decriminalizing simple possession of drugs, and defunding Vancouver police while reallocating funds to community organizations.
VICE News has reached out to B.C.’s Ministry of Health for comment and will update this story if we hear back.
“Either they step up and actually have some actions or they just get the fuck out of the way and we’ll do it,” said Hawkfeather Peterson, a drug consumer and advocate who helped put on the event. “It’s our right not to die.”
The Drug User Liberation Front is comprised of members of harm reduction groups such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the B.C. and Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors.
Erica Thomson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, said the energy at Tuesday’s event was “infectious.”
“When I get around our community and we’re doing stuff like this, I get jacked right up,” she said.
The march took place as B.C. faced its deadliest month for drug overdose deaths since the opioid overdose crisis started; more than 550 people have died of an overdose in the province in 2020. More than 5,000 people have died of overdoses in the Canadian province since 2016, when it was declared a public health emergency.
In contrast, the province has been lauded for how it has handled COVID-19. New daily cases are down to single digits some days; the death toll is at 170.
“Everyone’s like rah rah (provincial health officer) Bonnie Henry and painting her mural,” said Eris Nyx, an organizer with the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War. “The fucking crisis of prohibition has killed so many more people, month to month, in comparison to COVID in B.C. and most of those people are in the Downtown Eastside.”
At the end of March, the province released new guidelines for people who can access a safe supply of prescription narcotics. The criteria for those eligible for the program include people at risk or suspected of being infected with COVID-19, those with a history of ongoing active substance use, people at high risk of withdrawal, overdose, craving or other harms related to drug use, and youth under the age of 19.
The province also relaxed some of its rules around prescribing narcotics, allowing pharmacists to extend and renew prescriptions and doctors and nurse practitioners to verbally give prescriptions.
But Hawkfeather said there is a clear discrepancy in the urgency with which the government has acted in response to COVID-19 versus how the overdose crisis is treated. Organizers also told VICE News the amount of spending during the coronavirus pandemic has shown that money isn’t the reason politicians aren’t acting on harm reduction measures.
Recently, police shut down a safe consumption site Hawkfeather opened in nearby Sechelt, Hawkfeather said.
“It tells me that they don’t care if drug users die,” they said.
Hawkfeather said heroin helps them function but they try not to use it unless they can find a safe supply, which is currently impossible due to contamination. They said drug consumers should be offered safe supplies of the drugs they actually use—and not be forced to do substitution therapy, which many can’t access anyway.
“I found what helps. I want to be allowed to use it,” Hawkfeather said, adding the public is holding onto a misguided perception that drug users can’t have full lives or be good parents.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a drug user. You can be a drug user and be an absolutely amazing member of society,” they said.
Hawkfeather said the group is waiting to see how the government responds, and will host another similar event in the future.
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