Sitting against a backdrop of eclectic and colourful artwork that blankets the walls of a small east Vancouver apartment, TJ Felix manoeuvres a syringe filled with fentanyl and meth over their left arm, struggling to find a vein.
Felix doesn’t feel well. Their body is craving heroin, but it’s nearly impossible to buy on the street. And using fentanyl as a replacement is like dancing with death: It was detected in more than four out of every five fatal overdoses over the past six years.
Felix has used drugs for two decades, an antidote to the pain of losing both parents and growing up in foster care.
The past few years, though, had been “the best time in my life,” they said, because they were able get an untainted supply of their preferred drugs — heroin and meth — through an unsanctioned compassion club run by the Drug User Liberation Front.
But that peace of mind ended last month, when the provincial government cut funding to the group and police arrested two co-founders of the peer-led group, formed in 2020 to try to keep substance users alive during B.C.’s poisoned-drug crisis.
The shutdown meant the club’s 43 members lost access to drugs tested in labs, and were now at the mercy of street dealers.
“It was essential for survival. You know, without DULF, it’s kind of Russian roulette, going and trying to score on the street nowadays,” said Felix, in a slow and thoughtful voice. “I haven’t died yet.”
What happened with the Drug User Liberation Front, often called DULF, has become a political football. Opposition critics say it exemplifies the NDP government’s failed safer-supply program and its willingness to allow taxpayer funds to flow to a group that was buying drugs off the dark web, putting money into the hands of organized criminals.
Harm reduction advocates, on the other hand, say the government caved to pressure and jeopardized a life-saving program to avoid political embarrassment.
Since the Oct. 25 police raid, DULF has received support from a wide swath of people who argue the organization’s work may have been illegal, but was crucial at a time when tainted drugs kill more than six people a day in this province.
Some nurses, UBC medical students, parents of drug users, and a group of Order of Canada recipients have collectively raised their voices to say there is legitimate fear for the well-being of the 43 former members of the compassion club who have lost their safe supply.
“It was bad before DULF shut down. But since it closed down I feel like it’s only a matter of time before we start hearing about people that were part of the club passing away. And it’s kind of terrifying to think about,” Felix said.
“There’s just so many horrible consequences of what’s happened.”
‘We did it in the open’
It was no secret that DULF was buying cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine on the dark web, sending it to labs at the University of Victoria for safety testing, and then selling it at reasonable prices to club members through a storefront in the Downtown Eastside.
The non-profit club’s work has been featured in local and international media, including The Guardian and the Economist.
Vancouver city hall, under a previous mayor, voted in favour in 2021 of supporting the DULF’s work. Since 2021, Vancouver Coastal Health has allotted $530,069 to it for drug testing and overdose prevention. When the group started handing out tested drugs in 2020, Vancouver police often watched from a distance but never moved in to stop them, said co-founder Garth Mullins.
“We did it in the open as a challenge to the government to provide these kinds of services,” said Mullins, host of the Crackdown podcast and a longtime drug-policy advocate. “We always knew this (a shutdown) was a risk.”
So what changed since 2020 to prompt government and police to stop their tacit support?
“I think the reason why it took three years is because during that time, a law-and-order backlash was brewing up across the country,” Mullins said.
Federal Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre has railed against safer supply. In Victoria, B.C. United MLA Elenore Sturko said government money going to DULF was akin to taxpayer-funded drug trafficking. In Vancouver, the current mayor and council are more conservative than their predecessors.
The group didn’t want to support dealers on the dark web, Mullins said, but was forced to do so. In July 2022, Health Canada rejected the group’s request for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would have allowed them to buy drugs without breaking the law.
The compassion club was officially formed after that rejection and, although Mullins wasn’t part of the team who created it, he worries for the safety of the members who can no longer access a safer supply — and hopes the club will be resurrected.
“We’re still hoping to do this legally,” he said, noting there is a judicial review of Health Canada’s decision scheduled for March 2024.
In September, DULF released statistics for the first year of the compassion club that showed members had zero deaths related to the tested drugs, and reported significant decreases in overdoses, police interaction, hospitalizations and violence.
‘Only reason I’m still alive’
Mike Kalicum credits the compassion club for providing him with a safe supply at a very difficult time in his life. Specifically, he credits his older brother, Jeremy, one of DULF’s co-founders who was arrested by police, for saving his life.
“He’s definitely the only reason I’m still alive to this day,” Kalicum, 27, said. “Jeremy always watched over me growing up, you know, taking care of me when I was in addiction.”
Kalicum has a good job and a steady girlfriend, but he also had a drug dependency. He tried several treatment centres, but relapsed. He lost friends he made in treatment to overdoses, a “soul wrenching” experience.
A year ago, he joined the compassion club and since then has found stability. Kalicum has been clean a couple of months now, saying the support of his brother and the Drug User Liberation Front was instrumental.
Jeremy Kalicum and his compassion club co-founder Eris Nyx, he said, don’t deserve to be arrested. He insisted it’s crazy that people accuse his brother of being a drug dealer.
“What drug dealer drives a smart car and has a master’s degree,” Kalicum asked. “My brother was only looking to help people. … I’m very proud of him.”
Jeremy Kalicum’s LinkedIn profile says he has a master’s in public heath from the University of Victoria, and is a research assistant with the school’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
Mike Kalicum and all the people connected to DULF who spoke with Postmedia said they were worried about Jeremy and Nyx, who have been ordered not to speak with anyone at the organization. This week, police would only say the investigation continues and no charges have been laid.
A petition condemning the arrests of Kalicum and Nyx has now been signed by more than 200 organizations across the globe and nearly 2,000 individuals. Hundreds of people marched in support of them during a rally in the Downtown Eastside on Nov. 3.
The fact that the Drug User Liberation Front was getting money from Vancouver Coastal Health for various programs while also buying illegal drugs off the dark web has been an embarrassment for B.C.’s NDP government since the issue was first raised by Sturko in late September.
Sturko, a former Mountie who represents the Surrey South riding, said its unconscionable the government would allow taxpayer dollars to support a group that was buying drugs off the dark web, alleging that puts money into the hands of organized criminals who are responsible for gang violence and death.
NDP cabinet ministers have repeatedly said the funding from Vancouver Coastal Health was for drug testing and harm-reduction activities, not buying illegal drugs.
Sturko doesn’t believe that. She pointed to a video of Nyx and Kalicum speaking at a November 2022 harm-reduction conference in Australia, in which Nyx says, in a sarcastic tone and using air quotes, “right, we can’t use their (government) money to buy drugs.”
‘This is about politics’
The B.C. NDP government has, so far, tried to straddle the issue, with Premier David Eby in October praising the Drug User Liberation Front for its “life-saving work” but also making clear the government does not condone illegal activity.
Eby and Jennifer Whiteside, the mental health and addictions minister, have said as soon as they found out in October about the organization’s illegal activities, they ordered the health authority to cancel the contract.
However, MLAs including Niki Sharma, who is now the attorney general, were first told about the organization’s operations in mid-2022.
That’s when 10 MLAs from the NDP, B.C. United and B.C. Greens — members of the all-party standing committee on health — heard a presentation from three representatives from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, another harm reduction group that was working with the DULF on the compassion club.
The Network’s executive director, Brittany Graham, told the committee that, in an effort to reduce overdose deaths, her organization and DULF had created a compassion club to distribute hard drugs that had been tested for safety.
“DULF is buying drugs from the dark web and having them checked by three or four different services, boxing them up and letting people know what they are,” she said.
Sharma thanked Graham for her presentation and expressed sympathy for the losses of overdose victims, but did not ask about buying drugs from the dark web or their funding source.
On Wednesday, Sharma told Postmedia that she was unaware during the committee presentation that DULF was receiving taxpayer dollars through the health authority, and criticized B.C. United for suggesting otherwise.
“I think it’s highly regrettable and shameful that the work of the standing committee is being politicized in the way that it is,” she said.
Sharma said she found out about the public dollars last month, around the same time as other government ministers.
Vancouver Coastal Health started providing $200,000 in annual funding to the organization in 2021 for harm reduction, “critical services to keep people alive and help people stay safe,” a spokesperson said in an email. While Coastal Health believes the money was used properly for drug testing and overdose prevention, the email said the government ordered that funding be terminated and Coastal Health “has no plans to reinstate funding.”
In a recent interview, Graham said DULF was not secretive about what it was doing, which is why the sudden crack down smacks of “political pressure.”
“It feels very much like this is about politics and not about the actual system of improving services for our community,” she said. “Right now, politics is playing out, but it’s playing out with people’s lives.”
Nyx and Kalicum are not drug kingpins, Graham said, saying their aim was to prevent people dying from toxic drugs. Shutting down operations, she said, “will have an effect on overdose deaths, and those are real people.”
Sturko said she feels compassion for drug users affected by the organization’s collapse but she said the solution lies with the government doing a better job of providing pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs through the medical system, not with groups whose activities support the illicit drug trade.
B.C. United has called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the $1.2 million in taxpayer funds that went to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the Drug User Liberation Front, and an ethics review into the involvement of the University of Victoria, which assisted in testing the drugs.
In a Nov. 16 letter to B.C. United house leader Todd Stone, Peter Juk, head of the B.C. Prosecution Service, dismissed the need to appoint a special prosecutor, saying drug trafficking investigations are in the purview of federal Crown prosecutors.
‘Ray of hope’
Phoenix Beck McGreevy insisted no public money was being used to buy the drugs off the dark web. They were financed, she said, through donations, fundraising, and revenue from the members, like her, who paid for the tested products.
“DULF was a ray of hope while it was there, and (the shut down) has really crushed a lot of people,” she said, voicing her frustration at the decision makers who forced the club to close without providing viable alternatives to keep people alive.
“If you’re not going to help us, then get out of the way and let us help ourselves because we’re f***ing dying.”
McGreevy is married and works as a researcher for the University of Victoria’s institute for substance use research. She is also dependent on drugs, including cocaine which she bought in safe doses at lower prices from the club, where she had been a member since it was formed.
She will miss the Drug User Liberation Front’s storefront, where members had access to harm reduction supplies and could hang out in a non-judgmental space decorated with music posters and Shrek paraphernalia.
“It was a real community-like feeling environment,” she said. “It’s taken away space in the Downtown Eastside where I felt unconditionally safe, where I could go and I could be warm.”
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Two people arrested in connection with Vancouver-based Drug User Liberation Front
B.C. was the first province in Canada to introduce a safer supply program, but McGreevy and Mullins say the government system isn’t sufficient to significantly reduce overdose deaths: It offers pharmaceutical opioid, stimulant and benzodiazepine alternatives, which work for some people but not for everyone as true replacements for street drugs.
And less than 5,000 people are accessing the program, while Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe estimated there are 225,000 people in this province who use unregulated substances. Earlier this month, the coroner’s death review panel recommended a compassion club model be adopted — issuing drugs without prescriptions — to reduce overdoses. That proposal was rejected by the provincial government.
Trevor Goodyear is among a group of nurses affiliated with UBC and the University of Victoria who wrote an open letter after the arrests, arguing B.C. should be scaling up safer-supply programs rather than shutting them down now that toxic drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 59.
There is history in B.C. of challenging drug policy laws, he said, noting that led to the legalization of needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites.
“There’s a real emphasis (right now) on laws and policies, and perhaps not enough emphasis on the impact some of these laws can have, including when it comes to harms and even death for people who use drugs,” said Goodyear, a UBC PhD student who researches youth substance use and harm reduction.
“The consequences of not supporting programs such as DULF and other safe supply programs can be deadly.”
Felix, 34, knows that is true. A member of the Secwépemc Nation, they were one of the first members of the compassion club. “DULF became a really stabilizing factor in my life.”
Since DULF was shuttered a month ago, Felix’s life has been far less stable. The compassion club model, they said, is necessary right now to survive.
“If you don’t offer people what they need, or what they’re asking for, then they’ll find another way to get it. And that’s when the black market steps in. And that’s how people are dying,” Felix said.
“The law doesn’t speak to our morality. And I think it’s necessary to break those laws in order to make change that will save lives.”
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