DULF fiasco raises questions about government complicity in illegal activity 

Written By Fran Yanor

For years, B.C.’s drug policy agenda enabled the activities of two activists now facing charges for drug trafficking. Stakeholders and officials turned a blind eye.

After three years of operating with impunity in a city, a province and a justice system that turned a blind eye to their illicit drug-buying and distribution activities, Jeremy Kalicum and Eris Nyx of the Drug Users Liberation Front (DULF) were charged with several counts of drug trafficking following their arrests last fall. 

There’s no doubt they bought illicit meth, cocaine and heroin off the dark web, got it tested at a University of Victoria lab and resold the drugs. Nyx and Kalicum themselves have discussed their repeated “drug giveaway” events and illicit drug sales in a stream of media interviews and postings on the DULF website—including when they mailed illicit drugs to 15 B.C. drug user groups. 

“Throughout 2021, DULF and VANDU have illegally distributed clean and tested drugs to users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to demonstrate the necessity of community-controlled safe supply,” a Dec. 9, 2021 DULF post states.

On May 31, Nyx and Kalicum were charged with three counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking and are scheduled to appear in court July 2.

DULF and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) have been open about their activities. Much more up-front, it turns out, than B.C.’s elected government officials. 

Why were DULF and VANDU allowed to flaunt the law so brazenly and for so long? And who will answer for that?

The most obvious and simplest explanation is the system allowed it. More than that, it celebrated and cheered them on.

Until last fall, the B.C. and federal governments funded DULF, local police and federal prosecutors declined to arrest or charge them, and zero elected government officials spoke publicly against their then-ongoing illegal trafficking activities. 

In fact, Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson handed out drugs alongside DULF and VANDU members in 2021. A year later, federal Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett toured their operations, which DULF later marked by distributing 10.5 grams of “community regulated” cocaine, heroin and meth to “commemorate” her “historic” visit. 

Given the complex, complicit health and governmental apparatus enabling and protecting Nyx and Kalicum, the DULF representatives were more pawns in the system—however willing—than captains of it.

DULF and safe supply go hand-in-hand

DULF’s first public drug giveaway took place three months after B.C.’s so-called “safer supply” guidance was released in March 2020. The connection between DULF and the safer supply program is significant, because Nyx and others have repeatedly called their illegally obtained meth, cocaine and heroin an unsanctioned version of B.C.’s safe supply program.

A sample of the illicit drugs illegally sourced and distributed by the Drug Users Liberation Front. [Photo DULF]

The government safer supply allows medical prescribers to dispense highly addictive, fast-acting pharmaceuticals—namely hydromorphone—to people diagnosed with substance-use disorder, with the majority consumed unsupervised. 

Introduced as a pandemic measure to replace people’s reliance on illicit drugs and reduce overdoses, more than four years on, there is no scientific proof it has achieved either.

Some diehard advocates debate this last point, but even B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and her colleagues have conceded it is not an “evidence-based” intervention. Meaning, it’s unproven. 

Dozens of highly accomplished addictions physicians have warned against safer supply for its lack of efficacy, the widespread diversion that is happening and the harms they say it is causing by creating new opioid addictions in people for whom it wasn’t prescribed. 

These concerns should be sticking points in a public health measure, but they’re not. In February, Henry recommended expanding the type and potency of the pharmaceuticals, and further mused about increasing access to drugs through non-prescriber models.

For some, both safer supply and DULF’s drug trafficking are necessary means to the end goal of legalization.

Legalization, the long-term goal

Henry has repeatedly spoken in favour of legalization and regulation of all drugs, including when testifying before the federal parliamentary standing committee on health in May. 

“In the long term, would [legalization] be a way to counter the toxic street drugs and to take that business away from organized crime? Absolutely,” Henry said in a June 2023 press conference. 

Many of her colleagues share this goal—among them, her mentor and predecessor, former B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall. Although Kendall has now stepped away from the heroin manufacturing company he co-founded, he is one of an elite group of former senior-level public health officials who subsequently ran private sector enterprises reliant on the harm reduction policies they’d helped to create.

Back in a 2009, when current B.C. Premier David Eby was head of the BC Civil Liberties Association, he expressed support for the legalization and regulation of all illicit drugs in a social media post. 

In 2009, when he was head of the BC Civil Liberties Association, David Eby advocated for legalization of all illicit drugs. Asked about legalization this month, Eby called it “a non-starter.”

As premier, Eby has distanced himself from legalization, calling it a “non-starter” earlier this month and not a policy his government would pursue. Eby said there should be a medical prescriber between drug users and addictive drugs. Despite his stated intentions, much of the public health service he leads remains oriented to legalization.

Another fierce advocate of legalization at the top of the public health leadership chain is Dr. Thomas Kerr, research director of the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), one of the province’s primary drug policy and research agencies. Kerr has spent considerable time coaching drug user groups and building out capacity of drug-buying cooperatives or “compassion clubs.” 

In 2019, BCCSU researchers teamed up with drug users to develop a heroin compassion club model. Similar to the purported goals of safer supply, supporters claim drug-buying clubs can undermine organized crime and reduce people’s reliance on illicit drugs. Kerr and his colleagues have been working closely with VANDU for years, including when DULF was formed as an unsanctioned compassion club.

Kerr is listed as the main researcher behind DULF and VANDU’s joint application to Health Canada for funding and approval of a compassion club and fulfillment centre, which Health Canada denied, but was supported by several top public health officials. Meanwhile, Kerr’s work is ongoing. Most recently, he helped drug user groups and harm reduction activists plan a disruption of an addiction recovery conference, calling internationally renowned scientist speakers “snake oil salesmen.”

Much of this strikes as beyond the scope of work for a public health official.

Opposition calls for audit, Eby government under fire

The wheels flew off the bus for DULF last September after The Economist published a story, flagged by then-BC United MLA Elenore Sturko (now a BC Conservative), which first revealed to the public that DULF was receiving funding from the B.C. Ministry of Health. 

In a letter dated Oct. 5, Sturko asked the attorney general for a forensic audit of the combined $1.2 million in government funding given to DULF and VANDU in the 2021/22 fiscal year, as well as an independent review of all research material by BCCSU researchers related to the two activist groups.

Sturko also wrote the solicitor general asking for an investigation into allegations public funds were used to support illegal activities, and she lodged a complaint with the police.

Mayhem ensued for Eby and his ministers who came under political fire for funding an organization known to be engaged in illegal activities. Soon after, DULF was raided, Nyx and Kalicum were arrested (and released) and Eby cut off funding to DULF. VANDU’s funding was not mentioned.

A day after the arrests, the premier declared B.C. health authorities were told “government has a zero-tolerance policy in relation to breaking the law.” An uphill battle, given the pervasive nature to which it has been tolerated, according to leaked health authority letters and damning drug-using conditions in hospitals across B.C.

One branch of the government did heed Eby’s directive though, because about that time, B.C.’s Mental Health and Addictions community action initiative funding pages went dark. All the grants that had been listed as awarded to drug user groups across the province disappeared from the government’s website, including 10 groups mailed illicit drugs by DULF.

BC officials deny awareness of illegal activities

Throughout the DULF/VANDU debacle, which has tended to focus solely on DULF, the premier and his ministers have insisted they only learned of DULF’s illegal activities last October.

“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 last October.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth echoed Eby, as did Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside when she announced Oct. 23 the Ministry of Health had terminated the remainder of its 2023-24, $200,000 contract with DULF. Health Minister Adrian Dix, whose ministry funded the group, deferred 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.”

The government’s stance strains credibility, given the mountain of public discourse on DULF and VANDU’s activities.

DULF’s illicit drug trafficking well known

DULF’s first drug trafficking event was on June 23, 2020 when they blocked a city street and handed out more than 100 packages of cocaine and opium. The milestone in makeshift harm reduction policy was celebrated by B.C.’s own Centre on Substance Use when it trumpeted the action on its website. 

Another illegal drug giveaway event in April 2021 was highly publicized as well. This time, DULF and VANDU gave away free packages of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, with a live band playing on the back of a flatbed truck, during a neighbourhood block barbeque—across from a Vancouver Police station.

Eris Nyx at the Drug Users Liberation Front’s first public illicit drug giveaway event on June 23 2020 in downtown Vancouver. [Photo Jesse Winter]

In the last four years, DULF’s representatives have freely shared details of their illicit drug trade activities across 20 well-publicized giveaway events, and in repeated interviews with B.C., Canadian and global media outlets—including Time Magazine and VICE News, which profiled DULF’s drug illicit drug activities on Sept. 25 2021, and has since gotten almost 5.5 million views.

Even if the avalanche of events and media coverage escaped the awareness of every B.C. elected government official and their news-gathering staff, it’s a matter of legislative record that two years ago, Attorney General Niki Sharma was briefed directly on the group’s illegal drug operations. 

As chair of the all-party legislative health committee investigating the opioid crisis, Sharma heard testimony from VANDU’s executive director, Brittany Graham.

“VANDU and DULF, the Drug Users Liberation Front, have created a compassion club from a community-led model,” Graham told Sharma and other cross-party committee members.

“What does a compassion club look like? How does it operate?” Sharma asked.

Graham explained the process of procuring illicit drugs and distributing them to members. 

“We have been doing some ‘safe supply’ events in our activism in the last two years, with the Drug Users Liberation Front,” she said. 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.’”

Sharma didn’t ask any more questions on the topic.

Six months after police raided DULF and the B.C. government pulled its funding, Vancouver Police Department Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson was asked by the federal parliamentary health committee why police hadn’t taken action against DULF during the 2021 block party drug trafficking event. Wilson deflected to the “Crown’s likelihood of approving charges,” effectively throwing the prosecution service under the bus. 

“We do have a number of things that we have to consider, including Crown’s directive with respect to their drug policy,” Wilson testified.

In other words, police didn’t bother arresting anyone because they knew government wouldn’t charge them.

Last two standing

Nyx and Kalicum may have best encapsulated the political complicity of DULF’s situation when discussing government funding on a 2022 junket to a stigma conference in Australia. Joke-bragging to the audience, Nyx shared that Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had recently begun financing their group, but the funds were certainly not—wink-wink-nudge-nudge—used to buy drugs. 

Jeremy Kalicum and Eris Nyx on the complexity of getting government funds while trafficking illicit drugs. [Image Australian Stigma Conference 2022]

For the record, the B.C. government maintains funding was strictly intended for harm reduction services and DULF has previously asserted drugs were purchased with community donations, all of which will be a matter for police and B.C.’s auditor general to determine. 

It’s easy to imagine Nyx and Kalicum felt they were doing righteous service for society. Media touted them as frontline warriors in the crusade against prohibition and their peers championed them as revolutionaries in the fight for legalization of all drugs.

If they have savvy lawyers, and hopefully they do, they’ll reveal the system that enabled their clients and the architects who scattered from the court’s glare, leaving these “warriors” pinned to the sharp end of a failed legalization scheme, about to get nailed to the wall.