Daphne Bramham: Vancouver’s support for drug clubs’ free-for-all misses the mark

Opinion: Vancouver has endorsed a drug club plan that would provide members with free drugs in unlimited quantities. “F—ing crazy,” say critics.

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When Vancouver’s city council unanimously agreed to ask Health Canada to allow “clubs” or “co-ops” providing heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine to drug user members, one can’t help wonder if they actually read and understood the proposal before them.


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Loosely based on the 2019 report by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, this is a more radical plan that would allow a group of drug users with no medical training to buy and sell drugs in unlimited amounts to other drug users.

No medical oversight. No safeguards. No consequences.

The only thing that council balked at was endorsing the purchasing, testing and repackaging of drugs bought from the dark net, which is what the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) has done in the past.

Not that any of this matters.

DULF co-founder Eris Nyx rallies the crowd at a march calling for the safe supply of street drugs, on East Hastings Street in Vancouver.
DULF co-founder Eris Nyx rallies the crowd at a march calling for the safe supply of street drugs, on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

“We’re going to run this program by hell or high water because it will save lives,” DULF co-founder Eris Nyx told The Tyee. “We’re a radical organization. We don’t need state sanctioning. But it helps.”

The differences between what the BCCSU recommended and what council endorsed point to myriad potential problems.


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The BCCSU report was only about heroin. There was NOTHING about cocaine and methamphetamines. It made it clear that health-care providers should be involved in the screening of members. Membership would also require taking overdose prevention and naloxone training and receive education on various risks from overdose to mixing drugs.

“Due to the inherent risks involved” the BCCSU said clubs should operate alongside other public health and social services.

It also insisted that members would pay for drugs to limit the risk of diversion, citing evidence that when drugs are free, it’s more likely that people will sell them. And to limit risk of bulk purchases from organized criminals, BCCSU said individuals should only be allowed enough for short-term personal use.


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None of that is reflected in the council-endorsed proposal.

DULF’s only criteria for membership is that people would need to be over 18 and currently using illicit drugs.

“People would access the compassion clubs through their local drug user groups who would act as the main point of contact,” under DULF’s plan.

Drugs would be sent to the clubs “on an as-needed basis to drug user groups to distribute to members.” Those distributors would need to keep active membership lists, ensure secured and double-locked storage, keep records for amounts distributed and to whom, and maintain financial records.

There is no indication of who would be monitoring the clubs. No mention of who would bear the liability for any overdoses.


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While the BCCSU report said clubs would pay for themselves through membership fees and sales, DULF would rely on donations or some undefined “parallel revenue streams to subsidize the cost of substances.”

Alternately, DULF said, it could produce its own heroin, meth and cocaine and “significantly undercut market prices”.

It’s an open question how these clubs would protect themselves against their organized crime competitors.

But it’s worth noting that Vancouver has had de facto decriminalization for more than a decade, and that British Columbia has been providing a so-called “safer supply” of pharmaceutical drugs to opioid users since March 2020 under a special pandemic-related exemption from Health Canada.


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B.C. expanded that program in July even though it has acknowledged that there is limited clinical evidence to support it. In fact, the only evidence available is for heroin provided in highly supervised, clinical settings.

Because of that, physicians have been slow to register as prescribers. As the College of Physicians and Surgeons told members , “The need for caution is heightened in the absence of clinical practice guidelines or strong clinical evidence.”

It urged doctors to prescribe in a way that “minimizes the risk of harm and the introduction of unintended consequences that may negatively impart patients or the public more broadly (e.g. diversion).”

If access to pharmaceutical drugs is the answer to the overdose crisis, the B.C. experiment has yet to prove it. Since July, overdose deaths have continued to rise, with an average of six people dying every day.


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DULF’s proposal and testimonials from drug users provides an answer to why it’s not working: It doesn’t give users exactly what they want, when or where they want it.

Two addictions experts, who asked not to be named, described the drug club proposal as ‘”f—ing crazy”.

Others said they aren’t opposed to trying new and different things, but providing free drugs in unlimited quantities is a step too far.

“From where we started, this has truly crossed the line from harm reduction to harm facilitation,” said Carson McPherson, an adjunct professor in Simon Fraser University’s health sciences department.

SFU psychology professor Julian Somers was disappointed that Vancouver council wasted time on this but has done little to push for a large-scale strategy that includes a continuum of care from harm reduction to housing and other psycho-social supports and services.


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His own peer-reviewed research published nearly a decade ago concluded that, given options, even hard-core users with mental health issues made choices that resulted in less-frequent drug use, less crime and fewer hospitalizations.

But instead of dealing with the “glaring social needs” of drug users, he said, Vancouver council has chosen to support “a relatively desperate action.”

“In some ways it’s a charming story: People doing things for themselves in the spirit of camaraderie,” Somers said of DULF’s proposal.

“But those in a position of responsibility ought to know there is a science of addiction from the molecular level on up to the psycho-social. To do something because it’s a charming story? That’s not a good look for an elected official.”

In my next column, Vancouver Coastal Health’s Mark Lyshyshyn makes an argument for why these are desperate times that may demand desperate measures.


Twitter: @bramham_daphne



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