Jean Swanson: City council to vote on motion urging federal exemption so Vancouver can offer safe drugs, reduce deaths

A Vancouver city councillor is thinking of the six precious humans who died each and every day during the last month for which overdose deaths were tracked

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      The new poisoned drug death stats for July have just come out: 184 across B.C. I’m thinking of the six precious humans who died each and every day during that month—more than struck down by COVID-19.

      I knew personally some of those folks who died. Ron, who used to give me big bear hugs whenever I’d see him on the street. He came to every demonstration for more housing. Patti and I would ride home on the Number 10 bus, and we’d talk about what we did at our work in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier this month, I was at a memorial for a young person who left three kids behind. An older woman there to mourn that young mother told me she had come to believe that the only way her adult son is going to survive this epidemic of drug deaths is if he is provided with certified drugs guaranteed to be safe.

      She’s not alone. More and more family members are having a hard time sleeping at night worrying about their kids and the poisoned drugs they may inadvertently take.

      So many mothers have come to the conclusion that a safe supply of drugs may be the only way to keep their kids alive, they’ve formed a group called Moms Stop the Harm to lobby governments to make it happen.

      We know how to stop people dying from poisoned drugs. When you go to the liquor store to buy vodka, you know that when you get home and open it up, it will contain vodka. But that isn’t the case when you buy drugs on the street. They are laced with fentanyl, carfentanyl, and other stuff that make them poisonous.

      The province claims to be working to provide a safe supply of drugs, but the work is so slow and changes so minor that the death rate is not coming down. How many more lives lost each month will it take to make the province act faster? While they dither, can anything be done to save those precious lives?

      Vancouver Coastal Health says we need a safe supply of drugs. People who use drugs say we need a safe supply of drugs. Vancouver city council voted to endorse the idea of a safe supply of drugs.

      So, the Vancouver Area network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the Drug Users Liberation Front (DULF) have come up with a plan. If the government won’t supply the safe drugs that people need, those groups will buy the drugs, test them, package them, and give them out to members of their compassion clubs who are over 18.

      The plan requires the federal government to give them an exemption to subsection 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Exemptions are allowed under the act for a medical or scientific purpose, or if the exemption would be “in the public interest”.

      What could be more in the public interest, or necessary for a medical purpose, than saving lives now lost so needlessly?

      The preference of all parties is that the drugs be acquired legally, but that isn’t an option yet. The city submitted in May a formal application to then federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu to grant an exemption, but there has been no decision yet.

      That’s why I introduced a motion to support VANDU and DULF’s request for the federal government to make that exemption and put a stop to these needless deaths. On city council’s agenda on Tuesday (October 5), it likely won’t be debated until Wednesday (October 6) at the earliest.

      Vancouver Coastal Health supports their plan. They’ve even written a letter offering to work with groups to put it into action.

      “DULF’s proposal involves acquiring illicit drugs, testing them through existing community drug checking programs, labelling them, and distributing them to members of the club," the letter states. "This proposal would increase access to drugs that have been tested through community drug checking programs.

      “It has the potential to reduce harm associated with drug use for club members since we believe that knowing the composition of drugs prior to use can reduce the risk of overdose. VCH has an established relationship with DULF, have provided overdose prevention site designation to organizations who have provided drug checking and supervised consumption services at DULF-organized events, and would be prepared to continue to offer support as DULF implements this proposal in the VCH region should the exemption be granted.”

      People use drugs for a variety of reasons, such as responding to trauma and living with unresolved mental-health issues. Sometimes it is just something that people do, maybe on a weekend for fun.

      Today, under these circumstances, everyone who uses these drugs is at risk of dying—a terrible consequence out of all proportion. With a safe supply of drugs, people can live out their full lives as everyone should be able to do.

      Legalizing marijuana began with compassion clubs. Legalization got marijuana out of the black market.

      We can do the same for heroin, cocaine and meth. With a compassion club model, people who use drugs won’t have to hustle, or do illegal things, to make the hundreds of dollars a day need to buy their drugs on the black market.

      If residents feel as strongly as I do, I hope they write to the mayor and council or sign up to speak to member’s motion #9.

      To learn more, check out these videos:  

      Video: Watch this short film on the DULF Compassion Club.
      This video shows drugs being distributed to stop overdoses.