Vancouver backs push for ‘compassion clubs’ selling safer heroin, cocaine, meth

A man prepares heroin he bought on the street to be injected at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Vancouver city council voted Thursday to back a push for “compassion clubs” to supply safer drugs to drug users in the city.

The motion, which passed with unanimous support, will see the city endorse an application by the Drug User Liberation Front and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users for a federal exemption of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The groups are seeking to make use of the same legal exemption to Canadian drug laws that enabled Insite, Canada’s first supervised injection site, to operate.

Read more: B.C. becomes first Canadian jurisdiction to expand access to prescribed supply of drugs

Coun. Jean Swanson, who brought the motion to council, said the initiative was a realistic measure to address the deaths from toxic drugs in B.C.

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“It’s the biggest killer of young people under 40,” she said. “We’ve got to stop it. It’s six people a day; it’s too much.”

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More than 1,000 people died in B.C. in the first half of the year from suspected illicit drug toxicity, according to the B.C. Coroners Service, and the number of fatalities has increased dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The compassion club model was historically used to distribute marijuana to people with cancer and other chronic pain conditions prior to cannabis legalization.

In this case, it centres around a peer-led facility selling pharmaceutical-grade drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine to drug users over the age of 18.

Read more: Seven more B.C. mayors support Vancouver’s push for drug decriminalization

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The motion was amended to insist that the drugs be purchased from a legal source.

The concept is a part of the wider push for “safe supply” of street drugs, that has been backed by researchers, public health officials and even the B.C. government, amid the mounting death toll from toxic drugs.

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But Swanson said the way the province is currently willing to offer access to clean drugs — through medical prescription of street drug alternatives — isn’t working.

“Their methods of providing it don’t work for everybody, they only work for a small minority of people,” she said.

Read more: B.C. paramedics respond to highest-ever number of overdose calls in a single day

“We need to save lives. If you look at all the people who supported the motion yesterday they were people who use drugs, who are experts on this, they were doctors who treat people who use drugs, they were scientists who study drug use and what happens, they were community groups who set up programs who serve drugs users. Vancouver Coastal Health supported this plan.”

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Along with backing the Section 56 application, Thursday’s motion will see Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart write to the federal government and express his support.

Stewart is slated to meet with federal officials on Monday, and Swanson said he is also expected to raise the issue at that time.

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