If breaking the law will help end the toxic drug crisis, Nelson’s Dylan Marshall believes the risk is worth saving lives.
Marshall has started Kootenay Insurrection for Safe Supply, an organization he says was created to pressure the provincial government into changing its safe supply program.
First announced in 2020, the province has encouraged physicians to prescribe pharmaceutical opioids to substance users as an alternative to street drugs that likely include fentanyl.
But a growing chorus of critics that now include Marshall say the program doesn’t meet the needs of substance users who require safe options that also have the potency of illicit drugs. Marshall thinks that should include providing heroin and methamphetamine that have been screened for fentanyl or other additives such as benzodiazepines.
“Ideally we’ll be able to push them to do that before the point of breaking the law,” said Marshall, who previously worked for Nelson CARES. “But if it does become a matter of breaking the law to provide safe drugs to people, we will do that.”
On Aug. 16, the BC Coroners Service announced at least 1,095 people in the province had died due to the toxic drug supply between January and June this year. That means illicit drugs have killed 10,000 British Columbians since the public health emergency was declared in April 2016.
The federal and provincial governments have not ignored the crisis. In May, Health Canada approved a three-year decriminalization for the possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs in B.C. beginning Jan. 31, 2023, although advocates argue that amount is too small to make a difference.
The B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions meanwhile announced in 2021 it would spend $22.6 million over three years on expanded access to safe supply. But the program has been criticized for prescribing opioid agonist therapy drugs such as methadone that are clean but don’t meet the needs of substance users who have grown accustomed to the potency of fentanyl.
Access to safe supply is also a barrier for those in need.
Last month Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, announced $40 million in funding for safe supply programs but acknowledged physicians have been reluctant to prescribe the drugs. Just 1,607 practising family physicians out of 7,229 reported this year they prescribe safe supply drugs, according to the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons.
That’s made worse by a shortage of family physicians. Doctors of BC says nearly one million residents don’t have their own family doctor.
Marshall says all of these factors mean the time has come for more radical solutions to the crisis. Safe supply, he thinks, should include substances currently considered illicit, not just the ones like methadone or Suboxone designed as a gateway drugs to treatment programs.
The concept is already in practice on a small scale in Vancouver, where the Drug User Liberation Front has distributed tested supplies of heroin and cocaine.
“We want to see a safe supply, which means a supply that’s tested and it’s a known potency and composition so that people who are using drugs can make the choice to use drugs that they know aren’t going to kill them,” says Marshall.
The movie, which won Best Canadian Director at this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, follows the operations of safe injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The Civic Theatre is showing the movie Aug. 29 at 7 p.m., which will be followed by a Q&A that includes Vancouver-area and local harm reduction advocates. Tickets are free, but donations are being welcomed to pay for the visitors’ travel expenses.
Marshall says the film is difficult to watch, but also hopeful.
“It’s a really beautiful portrait of a community taking care of itself and a community that’s been largely abandoned by our government and is just sort of left on its own to respond to this crisis. That caring is beautiful to watch.”