For two weeks, B.C. Premier David Eby and his ministers have been adamant – their government severed ties with a Vancouver-based drug user group immediately upon learning it was involved in illicit drug trafficking last month. Yet several NDP MLAs, including Eby’s parliamentary secretary when he was Attorney General, were personally briefed on drug user groups’ illegal activities 17 months ago, according to legislature transcripts reviewed by Northern Beat.
“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,” Eby told reporters on Oct. 25.
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth echoed Eby, as did Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside when she announced on Oct. 23 the Ministry of Health had terminated its $200,000 contract with the Drug Users Liberation Front (DULF).
Health Minister Adrian Dix, whose ministry funded the group, has not weighed in on the controversy, deferring all questions to Whiteside.
DULF was contracted by the health authority to provide overdose prevention, drug testing, harm reduction and peer support services, Whiteside said. “Once we became aware that they were engaged in this other activity, aside from their contract, Vancouver Coastal took action to cancel their contract.”
But not only were DULF’s illicit trafficking operations widely reported, far and wide in the media – with their first public drug trafficking giveaway event trumpeted in 2020 on the government’s own BC Centre on Substance Use website – transcripts from B.C.’s legislative committee on health indicate the province’s Attorney General, Niki Sharma, learned about DULF’s illicit activities when she was a parliamentary secretary, reporting directly to Eby, who was Attorney General at the time.
Sharma was subsequently appointed Attorney General when Eby took over the premiership in November 2022.
The VANDU/DULF compassion club model
Back in June 2022, while chair of the all-party health committee tasked with making recommendations on the government’s response to the illicit drug overdose crisis, Sharma and other NDP government MLA committee members were told how DULF purchased illicit drugs on the black market, tested them, then gave away or sold the drugs to users as so-called ‘safe supply’ under a compassion club model of trafficking. The committee also had minority representation by Opposition BC United and BC Green MLAs.
“VANDU and DULF, the Drug Users Liberation Front, have created a compassion club from a community-led model,” Brittany Graham, executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), told Sharma and other MLAs on June 15, 2022.
“What does a compassion club look like? How does it operate?” Sharma asked VANDU presenters.
Similar to a cannabis compassion club, “it’s a members-only place [with] people pooling their resources, perhaps, to get a supply of what’s needed at a lower cost,” Dave Hamm, a VANDU director, responded to Sharma.
“We have been doing some ‘safe supply’ events in our activism in the last two years, with the Drug Users Liberation Front,” VANDU executive director, Brittany Graham clarified. “That group was doing it out of necessity at the moment. They were seeing a lot of people dying, and they said: ‘We want to get clean drugs to people now.’”
DULF had previously been distributing illicit drugs from VANDU’s location, Graham said. “So we said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be using our location and our name, we need to be involved in this,’” Graham recounted, referencing the document that explains how the DULF/VANDU compassion club/fulfillment centre model works: “how they procure things, how they test things and how it would go out to the compassion club.”
VANDU and DULF’s intertwined operations
In fact, the two drug user groups partnered on a proposal to allow the DULF, via VANDU, “to operate a Safe Supply Fulfillment Centre and Cocaine, Heroin and Methamphetamine (CHM) Compassion Clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia,” according to their 2021 joint submission to Health Canada. The two asked for an exemption to the Controlled Drug Act, so they could legally store illicit drugs on the premises.
“Historically, VANDU has partnered with DULF to distribute [cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine] safer supply to people who use drugs in Vancouver, and we hope to continue to build out this partnership and protect those most at risk of overdose death in our communities – in part, through the Safe Supply Fulfillment Centre and CHM Compassion Clubs,” the VANDU and DULF authors wrote.
In another report, proposing a study of the model, Graham and Dulf representatives describe the DULF/VANDU operation as “split into two separate institutions understood as the Fulfillment Centre, which acquires, tests, and accurately labels substances, and the Compassion Club, which screens and adds members, distributes substances, and follows up with participants.”
The report defines compassion clubs as “drug-user led collectives whereby drugs are bought in bulk, tested for purity and contaminants, and distributed at a reasonable cost.”
The groups had been working with Dr. Thomas Kerr, research director with the BC Centre for Substance Use, developing a related research project, Graham said. Kerr was also listed as the research lead on the fulfillment centre/compassion club study proposal and the groups’ submission to Health Canada.
‘DULF is buying drugs from the dark web’
When Health Canada rejected their application in the summer of 2022, the two groups banded together for another act of legal defiance, again handing out cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in public, this time assisted by a Vancouver city councillor and representatives of the safe supply advocacy group, Moms Stop the Harm, among others.
At that time, DULF also mailed packages of illicit drugs to 15 other drug user groups in B.C., including at least 10 funded by the provincial government, according to the group’s own website and a Nov. 1 letter from BC United Addictions critic Elenore Sturko to Solicitor General Farnworth.
“There are many other organizations that have not been engaged in illegal activity and it’s disheartening to see the government continue to entangle itself with those that … are willing to push their agenda on drug policy, by any means necessary, including breaking the law,” Sturko said in an interview.
Sturko, a retired RCMP officer, has asked for an investigation into the $1.2 million in funding to VANDU and DULF and allegations public funds were used to support illegal activities and questioned the legality and ethics of research being done with DULF by BCCSU.
In a letter dated Oct. 5, Sturko asked the Attorney General for a forensic audit of the $1.2 million in government funding to DULF and its affiliate, VANDU, and an independent review of all research material by BC Centre on Substance Use researchers related to the two activist groups.
Sharma was was unable to make time for an interview prior to publication.
“They’re turning a blind eye to both the partnership between DULF and VANDU and the fact that they were partners in the unlawful and unethical study that they were conducting, that both DULF and VANDU have a history of trafficking illegal drugs on the streets of Vancouver and doing it as ways of gaining attention for their activism. And I think it’s wrong,” Sturko said.
At the Jun. 7 committee meeting, VANDU representatives had just learned Health Canada was going to reject their application because it was illegal with no confirmed legal supplier, Graham told legislators. “Because we are buying drugs from, 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.”
‘I was hired to… get good, clean, safe drugs’
Later in the same presentation, VANDU director Hamm recounted to Sharma and the other MLAs how B.C.’s other major health research agency paid him $20 an hour to get illicit drugs for attendees at a conference the agency was hosting.
“I was hired by the BCDDC to be an ethical substance peer navigator, meaning I was hired by them at 20 bucks an hour to go out and get good, clean, safe drugs for people that were attending their conference,” Hamm told the parliamentary committee.
“That’s my way of helping my community and my friends and other members of our group. I make sure I get a good, clean substance. I get it checked. I make it myself. I make sure that there’s nothing in there that’s going to be harmful to anybody, and then I provide that to people in the community.”
He wasn’t worried about it being a bad thing, he said, “because it’s saving lives. If that’s the bottom line, the way it has to be done out there – there’s a bunch of us that are doing that now — making sure that that happens.
“With the DULF program, we’ve even expanded it even more, applying it to other substances,” Hamm explained.
‘I’m really curious about… compassion clubs,’ says Attorney General
Three months later on Sept. 7, 2022, Sharma again asked committee presenters about compassion clubs.
“I’m really curious about learning about compassion clubs, how they show up and examples of them from your experiences,” Sharma asked representatives of the Professionals for Ethical Engagement of Peers and People with Lived and Living Experience, a BCCDC and BCCSU Joint Committee of drug user groups across B.C.
“Right now there’s a wonderful organization called DULF, which is peer-led. It provides safe supply to people…” said Hawkfeather Peterson, a regional peer coordinator with Northern Health and president of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, which used to share office space with VANDU. Peterson is also a member of the federal government’s expert task force on substance use.
Peterson mentioned the 2019 BCCSU heroin compassion club model and “work that was going towards that,” then referenced a previously active compassion club and the work of drug users (peers) who had worked with BCCSU on the heroin model “which, for many of us, saved our lives. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t taken part in the compassion club that existed then.
“The only reason it didn’t work — it broke down eventually — was … that the supply was corrupted due to criminalization,” Hawkfeather said.
“DULF right now is, I think, doing amazing work. People should really take the time to look into DULF and the work that they’re doing.”
At which point, another drug user advocate told Sharma and other committee MLAs, she wasn’t comfortable with DULF referring to their drugs as “safe supply.”
Charlene Burmeister, founder of the Coalition of Substance Users of the North (CSUN) said: “The reality is that [DULF’s] substances are tested, but they’re still bought out through the black market, and they still support organized crime.”
Sharma’s only response was: “All right. Any other comments?”
Nov. 8, 2022 edits: the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors no longer shares office space with VANDU, a link to the membership list of the legislative health committee, and an expanded explanation of “all party.“