Canadian groups lobby for ‘safe supply’ to combat opioid crisis

Nov 9, 2021

In recent years, many Canadian groups and organizations have been calling for a safer supply of illicit drugs to prevent opioid-related deaths. In a recent article published by Time magazine, the article’s author Paul Moakley interviewed some members of the ‘safe supply’ movement.

According to recent data, deaths linked to opioid overdose increased by nearly 30% in 2020 to a record 93,000. Moreover, in Canada, opioid-related deaths have spiked by 89% over the last year.

Over the last decade, the opioid epidemic has evolved, becoming more deadly and driven by both illegal and prescription opioids, while its origins can be traced back to over-prescribing of opioid drugs by healthcare professionals to treat pain.

Proponents of the ‘safe supply’ movement advocate for the availability of a legal, federally regulated supply of illicit drugs including heroin to reduce the risk of overdose and exposure to dangerous adulterants, so that people can consume them more safely.

As part of a protest organized on the International Overdose Awareness Day that took place on August 31, 2021, a Vancouver-based safe supply advocacy group referred to as Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) handed out free illicit drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine in front of the police headquarters to raise awareness of the need for safe supply.

“Anyone who wants to find drugs can find drugs,” said Jeremy Kalicum, the co-founder of DULF. “The drugs that they’re finding are of unknown quality and unknown potency.”

In 2003, the first supervised safe injection site in North America, Insite, opened in Vancouver. Currently, there are 37 safe injection sites in Canada, with zero overdose deaths to date.

“History has shown that moving these initiatives forward often takes some form of civil disobedience from community groups,” said Kalicum. “It took people giving needles out themselves before the government thought maybe this is a good idea,” he added.

In recent years, Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH), a network of Canadian families impacted by substance-use-related harms and deaths, has grown to over 3000 members. Its founding member, Leslie McBain, lost her son to an opioid overdose in 2014. “He had an injury on a construction site when he was 23, and the doctor just prescribed loads and loads of oxycodone,” she said. “And that was his demise.”

In recent months, DULF and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) have been receiving increasing attention to their efforts of creating ‘safe supply.’

Moreover, DULF created the “DULF Fulfillment Center and Compassion Club model,” which would act as a market and consumer protection agency, testing and distributing street drugs in packaging that states the drugs’ contents. As part of Kalicum’s current activism efforts with DULF, he buys drugs on the dark web and tests them for evidence of fentanyl using a FTIR spectrometer before distributing them as part of the “safe supply” movement.

“I’m not a criminal, and obviously, Moms Stop the Harm aren’t criminals,” Kalicum says. “We’re just sick of it. We’re sick of our friends dying.”

So far, purchasing illicit drugs on the dark web has been one of the major criticisms of DULF, since it is impossible to verify sellers, who could be criminal organizations. However, in his interview with Time, Kalicum said that due to the current state of drug legislation, there is no other choice. “It’s not what we want to do,” he said, “but we’re forced to leverage the resources that we have access to, and that’s the dark web.” Currently, DULF purchases drugs using a private cryptocurrency called Monero.

After the protest on Aug. 31, DULF received a letter of support for its testing and safe supply plan from Vancouver Coastal Health, which was also signed by members of B.C. Centre on Substance Use and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Furthermore, on Oct. 7, the Vancouver City Council voted to support DULF’s plan, including an amendment to ensure that drugs would be purchased through legal means. As a result, groups would be required to collaborate with companies such as Fair Price Pharma to supply, test, and package legally sourced drugs before dispensing them to members of a compassion club.

Together with Eris Nyx, co-founder of DULF, Kalicum plans to apply for grants to fund their plan. “We have a colossal amount of work to do,” said Nyx. “People are constantly dying, and there is no end in sight.”