thumb-2023-011-02-british-columbia-overdose-crisis This article is more than 7 months old

Expert Panel Warns People Will ‘Die At Unprecedented Rates’ Unless BC Government Changes Approach on Drug Policies

Impacted communities are ‘mobilizing politically’ and engaging in ‘acts of civil disobedience’ in the face of unprecedented deaths

An expert death review panel in British Columbia says the provincial government needs to do more to stop overdose deaths after releasing findings that suggest “people will continue to die at unprecedented rates” unless there is a change in approach on drug policies.

On Wednesday, an expert death review panel found that “non-medical models to distribute safer supply are needed.” The panel urged the government to “immediately pursue additional measures to expand access to safer supply by allowing access for people at risk of significant injury or death without a prescription.”

“A fundamentally different approach is urgently required as incremental increases of existing interventions are unlikely to make a meaningful population difference and people will continue to die at unprecedented rates,” the report states.

The panel’s findings come nearly a week after members of a community group in Vancouver were arrested for helping run a “compassion club” to support people who use drugs.

Last week, Vancouver Police Department raided the Drug User Liberation Front, a Vancouver-based drug user advocacy group and arrested DULF’s Eris Nyx and Jeremy Kalicum who are now facing criminal charges.

On Friday ahead of a rally in Downtown Vancouver, a group of local community groups, drug policy advocates, and physicians issued a statement in solidarity with DULF.

“When I read the report of the Coroners Death Review panel on Wednesday I got a chill down my spine,” Jean Swanson, former Vancouver City Councillor and member of the Order of Canada said in a release.

“The panel of a bunch of medical health officers, professors, the Representative for Children and Youth, and even a cop from Abbotsford, recommend that the government do what Jeremy and Eris face life in prison for doing: giving people access to a safer supply of drugs to stop the poison ones from killing 6 people a day in BC.”

Prior to the arrests, BC United started a campaign to target DULF, falsely claiming they were using government funds to provide safe supply to members of the community.

DULF clarified that any funding used for their compassion club was fundraised through a GoFundMe.

The compassion club was created “in response to the ever-escalating overdose death rate, and the lack of meaningful response from policy makers,” in order to prevent more overdose deaths from taking place.

DULF previously attempted to go through formal routes, applying for an exemption through Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in order to operate a “safe supply fulfillment centre” in Vancouver.

Their request for exemption was ultimately denied on the basis of DULF’s plan to procure safe supply from illegal online markets.

“I understand that your organizations are taking action to reduce the harms associated with the ongoing overdose crisis. This goal is shared by Health Canada and aligns with the purposes of the CDSA,” reads a letter to DULF from Jennifer Saxe, the Director General of Controlled Substances Directorate with Health Canada.

“All of these activities and groups pose a substantial risk to the public safety of Canadians.”

However, DULF tracked the safe program’s participants, finding that in one year of the pilot, zero overdose deaths were known to have been caused by their substances.

The DULF arrests resulted in an abrupt stop in the club’s operations, leading to 43 people being cut off from their safe supply.

“We speak out in support of their [Jeremy & Eris] actions with DULF, actions that

opened up possibilities for us, for our community, and for drug users and people everywhere—the possibility to stay alive, and even to thrive, ” members of the DULF compassion club said in a letter.

“Today our survival hangs on by a thread. ”

Dr. M-J Milloy, a research scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, says that the battle around safe supply resembles struggles faced by Insite, North America’s first legal supervised consumption site located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Civil disobedience has long been a method by which communities have attempted to support communities in the absence of government action.

“The HIV crisis, and now the overdose crisis—in both cases, the affected communities had to mobilize politically and engage in acts of civil disobedience to move their agenda forward,” Dr. Milloy told PressProgress.

“Insite is a great example of an intervention that started with the community. It was community members that took it upon themselves to open illegal drug consumption and drug injection spaces, that really forced the governments to open Insite more than 20 years ago.”

There was a very strong backlash, it seems among the people who do not favor harm reduction based approaches to drugs and would rather see sort of prohibition based approaches to

Dr. Milloy says that “law enforcement based approaches” are being used to address the current problems in the place of community-centered research.

“I think the tragedy here is I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that, that shutting down DULF or raiding Dana Larsen’s dispensaries are going to save a single life.”

“People who use drugs in our society do not, unlike other groups, have an excess of political power,” Dr. Milloy added.

“A colleague once told me, when someone who uses drugs dies, no one in authority loses their jobs.”

Instead, Dr. Milloy says that researchers need to listen to and work alongside members of the community.

“I don’t think it helps any of us if we do evaluations just to confirm our preconceptions,” Dr. Milloy said.

“Researchers should put down our computers and we should listen to people in these communities, because at the end of the day, they know what’s important because it’s important to them, and generally researchers are not as impacted by the research decisions. It is a job for us researchers to listen to people with those sorts of ideas, and to evaluate them dispassionately.”

Hundreds of international organizations and individuals from around the world have signed an open letter standing in solidarity with DULF and calling on the Vancouver Police, the City of Vancouver, and the Province of BC to “Immediately cease criminalizing community-regulated safe supply in BC; restore DULF funding cut by Vancouver Coastal Health; and formalize a commitment to create a framework to uphold and protect community-regulated safe supply in BC.”

“We know with Insite that the science eventually won. I hope that at the end of the day the science wins. And I hope we don’t lose too many people before that happens,” Dr. Milloy said.

More than 13,000 people have died since the public health emergency was declared in BC.

“Governments and police are scapegoating those bold enough to disobey unjust laws and save lives – like our DULF colleagues,” Garth Mullins, host of the Crackdown Podcast, writer and community organizer said in a release.

“We didn’t set out to be outlaws but we realized that nobody was coming to save us, so we’ll have to save ourselves.”


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Rumneek Johal
Rumneek Johal is PressProgress' BC Reporter. Her reporting focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism.

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