Remember a few years ago when a tow-truck driver (later a mayoral candidate) drove around Chilliwack with a sign that said “Give ‘em all fentanyl”?
I wrote a column about Dave Rowan’s sign in 2017, about how it was a sad sentiment to be sharing publicly, but also how it made no sense because fentanyl is precisely what many opioid-addicted individuals want.
Well the Chilliwack Union of Drug Users (CUDU) were doing just that – distributing/selling fentanyl – out of a storefront location on Yale Road up until they were busted by the RCMP drug squad on March 19.
(Yes, CUDU is a thing, and I didn’t know it existed until this week.)
CUDU is an offshoot of the B.C. and Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (BCYADWS), which itself stems from VANDU, which might be more familiar to people, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
It was a little over 20 years ago when I was in journalism school in Vancouver and I first spoke to VANDU co-founder Ann Livingston. I spoke to her again on Monday about CUDU and how the VANDU model came to Chilliwack and about 10 other communities in B.C.
In August of 2020, amid a global pandemic and a worsening opioid crisis, the NDP government, specifically Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy, announced $10.5 million for “17 new supervised consumption services,” locations usually referred to as overdose prevention sites (OPS).
But nothing ever came of that for places like the north or the Kootenays or Chilliwack, according to Livingston.
So while CUDU is not a government sanctioned OPS, it was acting like one to fill a need, she said. CUDU was and still is, I’m told, operating on the front lines of preventing the inevitable deaths that come day after day in an opioid crisis, with an uncertain drug supply, and governments at all levels too timid to address the issue.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable to keep counting dead bodies,” Livingston said.
And while CUDU is acting like an OPS, it’s not official.
“When we have drug users who come inside we are not sending them outside to use their drugs. Drug users use drugs. They use them pretty frequently and so we know we can’t let people die in our bathroom or be a nuisance to our neighbours. So, yes, we have a place to facilitate safe drug use for the members of our group.”
Phew, there, she admitted it.
But so what? Livingston is unapologetic about the work she tried to do in Chilliwack, albeit with a manager who was not quite adhering to the BCYADWS program, which included democracy among members.
Drug users use drugs. If society cares about minimizing death, safe consumption sites are essential, particularly if a safe supply of drugs is not being provided, Livingston says.
“Substance use disorder is diagnosable and they won’t get on with the treatment. You couple this with homelessness and the criminalization. Everyone’s got a criminal record. They are harassed and pushed around by police.”
Livingston says there other models and not even new ones. In the 1980s in Rotterdam a priest kept finding dead bodies out front of his place of worship. Eventually he said, OK, come inside, at least you can save each other.
“So there is a house dealer so that is kind of doing a safe supply,” she said. “The drugs are so contaminated.”
Livingston is tired of not only the moralizing from some politicians, but also the blindness to the finances of dealing with people at the end of their rope.
“If any taxpayer wants to be resentful, preventing illness saves a lot of money. It’s $1,500 a night in hospital, $200 a night in a prison, and about $25 a day for decent housing.”
Livingston said that if it wasn’t for COVID they would be “humming along” taking care of people, holding 12-step meetings, helping people get better and get beyond drug use all while staying safe if they continue with drug use.
I asked her if CUDU would be closing after the recent bust announced by an RCMP press release.
“Oh hell no, we are not closing, really? If a cop gets busted do they close the whole police force?”
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