Vancouver police raid drug activists' office over trafficking, two arrested

A Vancouver "compassion club" that had been funded by the British Columbia government has been raided by police over alleged drug trafficking.

Vancouver police said Thursday that search warrants were served at the Downtown Eastside offices of the Drug User Liberation Front, and two homes linked to the investigation.

The group's website says its "fulfilment centre" allows drug users to receive up to 14 grams of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine per week, with the substances tested for safety before sale "at cost."

The raids come after weeks of pressure from the Opposition BC United for the government to investigate the activities of DULF, saying in a news release last month that it was "unacceptable that public money is being used to purchase illicit drugs" on the dark web.

Vancouver Coastal Health's website says the Drug User Liberation Front Society received $200,000 of public funding in 2021-2022.

The party said Monday that there should be a forensic audit of money given to the group, and on Thursday said the police raids came "in light of" advocacy by BC United.

Insp. Phil Heard, commanding officer of the Vancouver Police organized crime section, said that the investigation that began in September was initiated by the police, and did not involve any other organization or level of government.

Police said two people connected with DULF were arrested and released and that investigators will consider recommending possible drug charges.

Heard said the police support progressive drug policies and believe harm-reduction strategies reduce the number of people killed by toxic drugs, but organizations must follow the law.

"We are steadfast in our insistence that all strategies deployed must be fully compliant with the law. Anyone who ignores the law or fails to obtain the required legal exemptions should expect to be the subject of enforcement action," he said.

Earlier this year, the province's coroner said illicit drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in B.C. for people between the ages of 10 and 59, surpassing homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined.

DJ Larkin, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, which operates out of Simon Fraser University, said there are concerns in the community that the police action will cause harm and possibly more deaths.

"The police know this. And it is, frankly, on their hands if someone loses access to a safer supply and is killed in the unregulated market," Larkin said.

Heard said police are encouraging people to "seek resources in the community."

"The scope of the magnitude of the crisis is not lost on us," he said, referring to the overdose death toll of nearly 13,000 people since a public health emergency was declared in 2016.

"We're committing to innovating, having uncomfortable conversations, but ultimately with anything that's arrived at, it has to conform with the law. It has to be legal," said Heard.

In the B.C. Legislature on Thursday, Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon said the government's drug decriminalization strategies were "reckless," and the NDP had knowingly supported funding for a group buying illegal drugs.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said the contract granted to DULF was to save lives, not to buy drugs, and when the government found out it had been doing so, the contract was cancelled.

He said the contract was for "drug testing."

Elenore Sturko, BC United Opposition critic for mental health and addiction, said during question period that there was no way the raid should come as a surprise to Premier David Eby.

"The premier has ignored, dismissed and hand-waved this issue, and now there’s a criminal investigation," she said.

Sturko asked if Eby would undertake an audit of other groups that advocate for drug users in the province to see if they are also involved in criminal activity. BC United has previously said the government was furthering the drug crisis by funding DULF and another group, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, "instead of prioritizing treatment and recovery."

Eby wasn't in the house to answer, but Farnworth replied that the Opposition knew the contract was only for drug testing, "and to somehow suggest that government authorized or wanted funds to go to buy illegal drugs is just straight nonsense and they know it."

Eby said later Thursday the government is sending a letter to government-funded health organizations warning that illegal activities will not be tolerated.

He said the government cancelled the contract involving DULF when it became aware of its alleged activities.

"Now it will be up to the criminal courts to address the conduct of these individuals," he said.

Eby reaffirmed his government's commitment to addressing the province's overdose crisis through decriminalization and treatment efforts.

"What we're doing is trying to make this work for everybody," he said. "It is a huge challenge, and we've got more work to do but we will continue to push in this direction of treatment and protection rather than the criminal justice system for people struggling with addiction."

DULF has been distributing illegal drugs for more than a year. In an Aug. 31 news conference last year, co-founder Eris Nyx said it had distributed 201 doses in its first month of operation, and would continue distribution despite failing to secure a Criminal Code exemption.

Larkin said police taking action against an organization providing life-saving harm reduction is "deeply problematic" and that the group had sought an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act but was denied.

"The constitutional questions that arise are, what are the implications of criminalizing a group of people who are saving lives, by enforcing the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in a way that will put more lives at risk?" Larkin said.

Representatives from the Drug User Liberation Front did not respond to a request for comment.

Farnworth was asked by reporters at the legislature what the impact of the closure of the drug-users group would have for those who use its services.

"What we wanted to ensure is that those people who need help get help," he said.

"I do know that the ministry and Vancouver Coastal are looking for other providers to be able to provide the services that the organization was supposed to be doing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.

By Ashley Joannou and Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press