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Illicit drugs should be sold, regulated like alcohol, says advocacy group

Last Updated Sep 11, 2020 at 1:28 pm PDT

Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Summary

COVID-19 had destabilized illicit drug supply and prices, increased crime

More people cutting their drugs to make cash go further, say drug users

Isolation is driving increased drug use on DTES, says advocate

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A clean, regulated supply of drugs will only work if you give users the substances they are seeking, say advocates fighting for a compassion-club model of street-drug delivery.

Advocates with the group Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War believe the crime, conflict and thousands of deaths associated with the overdose crisis could be prevented if people didn’t have to hustle to survive and support their addictions.

“I think most of the overdoses we’re seeing are people being introduced into supply chains where they don’t understand what’s in the drugs,” says Eris Nyx, a program coordinator with Coalition of Peers.

She says COVID-19 has destabilized supply, forcing people to source drugs from previously unknown sources at prices they can’t afford.

She says the higher prices go, the more people have to steal, hustle, sell drugs and do survival sex work, just to get by.

Nyx says drug users are also now cutting their own drugs with dangerous fillers and substitutes to try to make their limited income go further.

“If you removed all these prohibitions around the movement and exchange of drugs, this wouldn’t be an issue. The price of drugs would be incredibly cheap. The price of drugs is artificially inflated because there’s a shortage and a bubble caused by the war on drugs,” says Nyx.

Calls for liquor store type model

With record numbers of people dying from toxic drug supplies every month, and overdose calls stretching first responders thin for more than half a decade, Coalition of Peers believes it’s time for drug users to have access to their substances in a way that would mirror access to alcohol.

“Like a liquor store. Every single drug, every single illicit drug should be available for purchase in a store where you do not have to have a medical condition to acquire it,” says Nyx.

Such a store would supply heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines. While CPDDW sees youth drug use as complex, the group understands youth will experiment with drugs and takes a harm reduction approach to the issue.

“And, you know, we’re not even trying to place ethical weight on the choices. I’m just like, if my kid was smoking heroin, even if I didn’t want my kid smoking heroin, I would at least want to know that they knew what they were doing, knew how to reverse an overdose and the content of the drugs,” she says.

Meriah Main is a registered nurse who works on the Downtown Eastside and is a program coordinator with Coalition of Peers. Main says the current medicalized model of safe supply leaves out those most at risk as well as recreational users.

Much like a pill would not be a suitable substitute for a pint of beer, Main says medicalized versions of street drugs are not desirable to most users.

“If I want to go have three beers with friends, it’s not going to feel the same to pop a tablet that I have to go to the pharmacy for before I go hang out with those friends; illicit drug users explain, describe and see that the very same way. So people who want to use cocaine and they smoke it or they snort it or they inject it, that’s very much like how we would drink a beer,” she says.

‘More active forms of resistance’

Surrounded by dying friends and community members, Nyx says life on the Downtown Eastside has become more brutal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Everyone in the drug community has become more desperate, more poor and more at risk of overdose.

“For me personally, I feel like I have a lot of post-traumatic stress symptoms, I’ve just become totally disconnected from everything; that feeling, where like, I’m already dead. And at that point, if you already feel like you’re already dead, you know, more active forms of resistance become more enticing,” she says.

In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, overdose prevention sites are operating at reduced capacity and SROs and hotels have guest bans in place.

But those measures have lead to more deaths, with more people using in isolation and with the mental health impacts of isolation driving more people to use in general.

“So what we’re seeing is not only less overdose prevention services being offered, but also social isolation, which frequently leads to increased amounts of substance use and more dangerous approaches to using those substances, using them in less safe ways, using them alone,” says Nyx.

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“Let’s say your mom is in another SRO across town. You’re used to seeing her consistently, or your friend who uses with you and can administer Naloxone: they can’t get into your building now,” Nyx explains.

“So if you’re a drug user and especially a daily drug user, if you’re using you’re at a much higher risk of overdose fatality because there won’t be anyone there to revive you.”

Nyx says some drug dealers are being diligent in checking their product and guaranteeing drugs have not been cut with other street drugs or chemical fillers, but those dealers are rare and “on the frontlines of resistance against government policy.”

With no promise of decriminalization coming from either the federal Liberals in Ottawa or the B.C. NDP in Victoria, Nyx says people are ready to resist more meaningfully and one way that could happen is by setting up a store to sell clean drugs with, or without permission.

“The law is not on our side. Dangerous criminals are not on our side. So, we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place and trying to protect ourselves while being absolutely decimated as drug users by government policy.”