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By Paul Moakley / TIME
On a morning Zoom call, a group of Canadian mothers give their full attention to a young man from the Drug User Liberation Front. At 26, Jeremy Kalicum is the age some of their kids would be if they had not died of accidental overdoses.
Kalicum’s tone is urgent as he walks the moms through a PowerPoint presentation explaining why the Liberation Front, known as DULF, wants to protest on International Overdose Awareness Day and hand out illicit drugs. These wouldn’t be the kind that killed their sons and daughters, he assures them; they’d be “safe supply” drugs that have been tested to ensure they’re not laced with lethal fentanyl. “Anyone who wants to find drugs can find drugs,” says Kalicum, reasoning that the best way to save lives is to make sure users are given the safest possible drugs. “The drugs that they’re finding are of unknown quality and unknown potency.”
Then, after 15 minutes of slides and stats, Kalicum and DULF co founder Eris Nyx makes their pitch: they want these mothers, from a group called Moms Stop the Harm, to join them and other activists in their distribution mission, an admittedly risky protest that could land them in jail.
“I’m not a criminal, and obviously, Moms Stop the Harm aren’t criminals,” Kalicum says. “We’re just sick of it. We’re sick of our friends dying.”
Everyone on the call can relate. Each has lost someone to the opioid crisis, which has soared in North America during the pandemic, especially in Canada. In the U.S., deaths rose nearly 30 percent in 2020 to a record 93,000. In Canada, deaths soared 89% over the previous year.
Behind the numbers lies a cruel irony that every parent listening to Kalicum understands, and that drives the “safe supply” movement: Opioids were perfectly legal when their children were becoming addicted to them, promoted by pharmaceutical giants and doled out by physicians who enabled the crisis by accepting drug companies’ claims they were safe.
When the reality became clear, and prescriptions became hard to come by, it was too late. Untold thousands of pain-addled patients had become hooked on what opioids provided, as had many young people who’d begun experimenting with the pills recreationally. They found relief on the streets in the form of heroin, then began dying from illicit drugs either laced with fentanyl or entirely replaced with the compound, which is 50 times more potent than heroin.
That is the arc of the Opioid Crisis: From patient to criminal to, more and more often, early death.
The “safe supply” movement seeks to counter this deadly progression by ensuring the integrity of the dosages that users have been conditioned to crave while providing care that keeps them alive and could wean them off drugs. “It’s not who we are to stand passively by,” says Kalicum. “We’re gonna do something, and we’re willing to take on personal risks to do that. But we can look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we’re doing what’s right.”