Safe supply advocates fight a war on two fronts

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      As a right-wing backlash ratchets up against safe supply, advocates on the ground are caught fighting a two-front war: defending the concept of safe supply while battling against the BC government’s interpretation of it.

      Activists who have for years struggled against the government’s implementation of safe supply—which they say has been woefully and fatally inadequate—are now faced with a resurgent opposition to the program as a whole. Since the release of Aaron Gunn’s Vancouver is Dying last fall, opposition to harm reduction—particularly safe supply and decriminalization—has ratcheted up quickly, with the National Post publishing a 10,000-word opinion piece on safe supply and Gunn producing a follow-up video, Canada is Dying.

      Politicians, too, have latched onto the momentum, with federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre coming out in force against safe supply, including introducing a motion in Parliament to call on the government to reverse course; and BC United making drug policy a key wedge issue in the recent Langford-Juan De Fuca byelection. 

      While the growing movement against safe supply hasn’t been unexpected, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition’s systems change coordinator Nicole Luongo said the “swiftness and the severity of it” is notable.

      “I have been tracking, kind of, this far-right or right-wing coalition and its connections with the abstinence-based addiction treatment industry for some time,” she said. “I believe it is absolutely a conscious choice they’ve made to focus on as a wedge issue for both the next provincial and federal elections.”

      Abstinence-based treatment program providers, such as the now-embattled Last Door Recovery, are among those who have been the most vocal against safe supply. And many of those groups have ties to right-wing political operatives.

      Garth Mullins, an organizer at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and host of the Crackdown Podcast, said he’d been bracing for a backlash for a while.

      “I’m in my 50s, so I’ve been through a few cycles of this before. And they always look a little different, and the hook is a little different, but I’ve seen and felt it in the Harper years and around just before [the safe consumption site] Insite was opening,” he told the Straight. “It’s sort of like a bunch of points come together. It’s this vague feeling of fear that is cultivated in the public: people don’t feel safe. And it does feel like a precarious world.”

      But those anxieties are coming from factors other than crime—it’s in no small part economic, Mullins said. It’s worries about affording groceries or rent, but it’s also worries about COVID-19; and scapegoating a vulnerable community, like drug users, allows that anger to be shifted onto another target to deflect from the failure of institutional power.

      “The right puts their finger on something—you feel scared, you are worried—but then they pivot and they say, ‘Well, what you should be worried about is there’s people roaming around with no house who are mentally ill drug users,’ ” Mullins said.

      “They kind of mix in there chronic offenders that are getting arrested all the time, and they suggest the cause is we don’t lock people up enough anymore. And the solution is more cops and less funding for any programs that ‘coddle’ drug users.”

      Mullins and Luongo agree the resistance can be traced to a surging culture war waged by the right. But while those south of the border seem to focus most on dismantling transgender rights and banning drag shows—and that aspect isn’t entirely absent in Canada—the focal point here is more on safe supply and drug policy.

      Luongo suspects it’s because drug policy is an easy target that motivates a vocal right-wing base in Canada, similar to how anti-LGBTQ2S+ rhetoric does in the US—but that the right sees more potential for success in the drug policy sphere.

      “The focus on safe supply speaks to the unique Canadian drug policy context,” Luongo said, noting that “nothing resembling” safe supply exists in the US and harm reduction is still taboo in much of that country.

      “As much as I have very valid criticisms of every level of government, it’s not quite as aggressive as the US is. I think if you’re a conservative operative or actor, and you’re like, ‘What is something that is kind of low-hanging fruit that I can point to as a symptom of Canada’s decline’ or whatever, safe supply is a pretty obvious one.”

      But Luongo said the existing safe supply policies facing pushback are themselves a bastardized version of what safe supply should be. Rather than actually disrupting the illicit market that produces the toxic drug crisis, only a handful of pilot programs exist, serving a fraction of drug users. Of the estimated 80,000 people with a substance use disorder in BC, only about 5,000 people have accessed a safer supply, which has effectively been limited to opioids—particularly hydromorphone, a substance that may not be effective for someone who’s used to fentanyl.

      “The positive narrative around harm reduction has largely come from governments who have invariably co-opted and sanitized it,” Luongo said.

      Things like safe consumption sites and the proliferation of naloxone are necessary because of that failure to adequately implement safe supply, she added.

      “I don’t want to see a safe consumption site on every corner. I don’t want a bunch of people having to go to doctors every day to get safe supply,” Luongo said. “I want drugs completely legally regulated, and I want the risk of overdose to be substantially reduced.”

      But this is how it always happens, Mullins said.

      “Every time we’ve won something with any government of any stripe, it’s been partial,” Mullins said. “So every time we get a reform, they’re never doing the thing that we’ve proposed that would actually solve the problem.”

      Take BC’s partial decriminalization of drugs, which came into force earlier this year. The amounts decriminalized under the law are exceptionally small, only apply to certain substances, and can still involve police interactions in ways that were defined and shaped by cops. Drug users’ plans for decrim, by contrast, were broader and more community-focused.

      “We recognize that as a good first step, also an indication of our own power… But we also have to see how these reforms are getting weaponized,” Mullins said. “So you have to defend the concept, but you have to say we need to make the government build it right. We need to say that if the Conservatives have their way, things will be much worse.”

      Although limited, safe supply as implemented has been effective for many of those who are on it. Beelee Lee has been on prescription hydromorphone since January 2018, and told the Straight she has been able to “really stabilize [her] life” since then.

      “I was doing peer work in the community, and through this program… I was able to transition to support work, and then I was able to transition into a leadership position through my employer. So safe supply has really, really saved my life, and it’s helped me better my life,” Lee said.

      “Nothing ever worked. I tried abstinence. I was in and out of treatment, in and out of detox, probably 13 times or more in detox. And the most time I ever got was just over a year abstinent. But I still always had that urge, and the cravings were too powerful for me to stay abstinent.”

      Lee described the politicization of safe supply as classist.

      “If you read some of it, they talk about homeless people selling it—it’s anti-poor; it’s just disgusting,” she said. “They’re politicizing this toxic drug supply, and we’re still losing seven people a day.”

      She said the right is also guilty of getting the toxic drug crisis to this point, through cuts to mental health and addictions services.

      “There’s going to be noise from the right, and to me, it’s just noise, and I just hope that it doesn’t pick up steam,” she said.

      “I have faith in what I know is happening in the community, that one day soon we are going to have a safe supply—a real safe supply of the drugs that people desire, not the medicalized version.”