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DULF arrests consolidate worldwide response
The arrests of the compassion club organizers are creating international blowback. How did manoeuvring by politicians and police convince them the arrests were good strategy?
Co-author Alex Betsos (they/he) is a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an International Working Group Member of Youth RISE. They're studying the intersections between illegal drugs, science, and Canadian and International Drug Law in the late 20th century in Canada.
How You Can Help
We are dealing with an organized, well-funded right-wing that relies on common tropes about drug users and safe supply. However, they probably didn’t expect the arrests of DULF organizers to elicit an internal response: the open letter has now been signed by the world’s largest drug policy organizations and regional groups from every continent. Together, they represent hundreds of thousands of workers, businesses, policy experts and community members.
You can support the fight by attending protests in support of DULF on November 3:
You can also sign and share the open letter.
Lastly, get informed and have conversations with your friends and family. The National Safer Supply Community of Practice compiles the emerging evidence, so you don’t need to conduct a literature search on your own. Follow and amplify your regional organization representing people who use drugs.
We call on those who are involved in drug policy, but especially those who are not, to help support DULF in whatever way they can.
A history of safe supply criminalization in 2023
If Margaret Thatcher’s greatest political success was Tony Blair, then Kevin Falcon’s greatest political success is surely David Eby and the current BC NDP.
On October 25, just 20 days after Premier Eby’s BC NDP rendered moot its 8-month-old “diet decriminalization” legislation by cracking down on drug use in public spaces, the organizers of Vancouver’s only compassion club for regulated heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine were arrested by Vancouver Police. The timeline of events surrounding this provides a textbook example of institutional ass-covering.
“As soon as I was aware, and the minister was aware, that this organization was trafficking drugs and breaking the law, the instructions went out to the health authority to discontinue this group’s funding” – David Eby
To understand how the right-wing moral panic around safe supply has been constructed, let’s step back to early 2023.
January 24 – Last Door incites diversion panic
Ten days before sexual assault allegations rocked the New Westminster recovery community, Last Door’s Director of Operations Jessica Cooksey went to Global News with second-hand stories that teenagers were accessing hydromorphone from safe supply dispensing machines.
BC United MLA and ex-Surrey RCMP officer Elenore Sturko was quick to adopt the framing, stating despite the requirement for prescriptions to access these machines the need for “safety measures in place and other ways of having [safe supply dispensing] supervised.” The sequitur seems intended to create “save the children” panic around safe supply prescribing while hyper- medicalizing it – in hindsight, a stepping stone to dismantling community-regulated supply led by people who use drugs. Like DULF.
May 4 – the first safe supply arrest by Vancouver Police
Jerry Martin opened The Drugs Store on May 3 in response to his brother’s overdose death. Within 24 hours, he was arrested by Vancouver Police. Martin had understood this risk and was operating on the hope that any eventual legal trouble could provoke a constitutional challenge, potentially eliciting an overthrow of the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Tragically, on July 1, Jerry Martin died of a fentanyl poisoning.
May 11 – Sturko fans the flames
On the heels of a 10,000-word opinion piece on safe supply in the May 9 National Post (cited as a “story” by Global BC), on May 11 Sturko told Global about unnamed physicians at a Vancouver hospital who were reducing their hydromorphone (safe supply) prescribing, citing concerns about “a worrisome increase in cases of New Onset Opioid Use Disorder.” The unnamed physicians Global interviewed had not bothered to examine the considerable data on overdose reduction in safe supply programs.
Sturko told Global about plunging street price of hydromorphone, citing “the government’s flooding of the market” as the driver of this imaginary outcome while ignoring that less than 5% of people in BC diagnosed with opioid use disorder are currently able to access safe supply: it’s less of a flood, more of a trickle.
September 20 – DULF releases preliminary findings
On September 20th DULF released findings from a study conducted with methodological design support of the BC Centre on Substance Use. In this study, they found an overall decrease in overdose deaths, as well as a decreases in experiences of violence and negative police encounters.
September 29 – BC United goes on the attack
On September 29, MLA Sturko questioned the BC NDP support for DULF’s compassion club, which snowballed into BC United Caucus calling on the BC NDP for an ‘investigation’ of DULF. In the BC United press release on the subject, party leader Kevin Falcon erroneously implied that public funds were going to purchase safe supply, saying “it is unacceptable that public money is being used to purchase illicit drugs in any way that supports organized crime.” He recycles Reagan-era Drug War rhetoric: “we need to stop normalizing illicit drug use and increase enforcement against organized crime so we can get illicit drugs off our streets and help people get better.”
BC’s Minister of Mental Health & Addiction Jennifer Whiteside responded that the provincial funding for DULF was “explicitly for drug checking, overdose prevention training, and harm reduction services,” but fails to address the implication that DULF was using public funds to purchase drugs. They were not.
In response to the BC United investigation call, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre thanked the Vancouver Police “for enforcing the law against this drug trafficking organization which has been allowed to freely operate because of the normalization of dangerous drugs by the Liberal-NDP coalition.” By referring to DULF as a “drug trafficking organization,” Poilievre erases years of courageous activism and in typical fashion, reduces a nuanced conversation about justice to black and white: illegal and legal. Odd how this strict adherence to the letter of the law was missing while he posed for photos with the illegal occupation of downtown Ottawa.
October 24 – BC NDP cuts DULF funding
Folding to the unproven accusations, on October 24 BC’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth announced that the $200,000 provincial funding for DULF’s compassion club was being slashed, telling CityNews “[DULF’s] contract was for drug testing, not for the purchase of illicit drugs.” DULF holds that any support for purchase of illegal drugs came from donations and from cost-neutral sales to compassion club members – not from provincial funding.
October 25 – Police Raid DULF
Just a day later, the two members of DULF were arrested. Their compassion club was raided as well as their homes. In a VPD press conference, presenting Inspector Phil Heard came under repeated questioning from media about the central premise that VPD believed DULF was simply conducting “protest events…[but] through the course of the investigation, knowledge in terms of [DULF’s] activities not being 2 or 3 times a year but being on a regular recurring basis, and the volume of drugs trafficked are the factors that we would consider in taking enforcement action.”
Insp. Heard revealed that the investigation began in early September. Is it possible that the timing of the VPD investigation was coordinated with the BC United Party’s questioning in the legislature later that month?
“We fully support safe supply.” – Inspector Phil Heard, Vancouver Police Department
Since the arrests, BC United have increased calls to audit VANDU and have continued their attack on DULF in the BC legislature, with language conflating these two organizations in an apparent attempt to merge them in the public eye.
Meanwhile, late in the morning on November 1, Dana Larsen made the following announcement on Twitter:
At the time of writing, we are unaware if it is only Larsen’s shops that have been raided, or whether the multiple other magic mushroom shops in Vancouver have shared the same fate. (Update Nov 2, 8:04AM MST: Global BC reports the only shops raided on November 1 were shops owned by Dana Larsen. He is outspoken in his support for DULF, offering to match donations made to the organization in the wake of the October 25 arrests.)
Later on November 1, MLA Sturko issued a letter to Minister Farnworth requesting an investigation into criminal activity by DULF and VANDU and a breach of research ethics by the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and the University of Victoria.
The BC NDP has squandered so many opportunities to push back and build the structures for safe supply in their province, we can only assume they will capitulate yet again. But that isn’t inevitable: let them know how you feel.
Drug Data Decoded provides analysis on topics concerning the war on drugs using news sources, publicly available data sets and freedom of information submissions, from which the authors draw reasonable opinions. The author are not journalists.