Last week, a man in Vancouver, Canada casually opened a shop selling heroin, coke, MDMA and meth. Dozens queued up to be served by 51-year-old Jerry Martin at the aptly titled The Drug Store, a mobile pop-up shop operating out of a trailer, last Wednesday. Wearing a stab-proof vest, he sold a maximum of 2.5g of the drugs to anyone over 18 with a valid ID. He’d even tested everything on sale via his harm reduction organisation The Safe Supply Project.
Martin was unsurprisingly arrested the day after The Drug Store opened. But why did he do it? In January this year, British Columbia (BC), the province that Vancouver sits in, became the first place in Canada to make amendments to their Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. As part of a three-year pilot programme, this made the possession of personal amounts (2.5g or less) of drugs such as coke, MDMA, meth and opioids (eg. fentanyl, morphine and heroin) decriminalised. The move was aimed to curb the staggering number of drug overdose deaths in the area.
BC is a province with a population of around five million people, which, for context, is significantly less than London’s roughly nine million people. In BC, an average of almost seven people die from a drug overdose each day; 596 people tragically met their end that way in the first three months of 2023. For comparison, according to the latest drug death statistics in England and Wales, there were 296 drug use deaths in London in 2020 – and that’s the highest since records began. But in BC, a total of 11,000 people have died from an overdose since 2016.
Often the overdoses are linked to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid which has gradually become more available than heroin on the street corners of Canada over the years. Between January and September 2022, an estimated 81 per cent of accidental apparent opioid toxicity deaths involved fentanyl.
Drug experts have previously told THE FACE that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are favoured by dealers as they’re easier to manufacture, smuggle and move around. But fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, which significantly raises the probability of accidental overdose. This is a reality that Martin knows all too well. One of his brothers died last year from an overdose, while the other was stabbed in a drug deal gone wrong many years before. And Martin himself is a drug addict in recovery – he hasn’t used drugs in 15 years.
“I think it’s time,” Martin told Canadian radio host Vassy Kapelos ahead of the opening of the shop. Naturally, she asked the obvious: couldn’t opening a shop selling drugs like a newsagent knocking out pick and mix cause more drug-related problems? “People are not safe one way or another,” he continued. “Especially since we are going to decriminalise [drugs], we’re going to have the whole province who thinks we’re going to be able to [use drugs] legally and have no safe supply, which I believe is just going to spike the overdoses. [Users] need a safe supply.
“I don’t think this has been done anywhere in the world, not like this anyway. I think it could be very successful, we’re definitely going to save some lives.” Martin continued. “Am I going to stay out of jail? I don’t know. Part of the plan really is not to. Not that I want to go to jail, but then we can have a constitutional challenge to try and legalise some of these drugs so that people can have a safe supply.”
BC’s new decriminalisation law will stay in place for a three year trial period, but, unfortunately for Martin, dealing these drugs remains illegal. As predicted, he was indeed arrested. The Drugs Store lasted for less than 24 hours. The Vancouver police said that they’d “arrested a man for drug trafficking in connection with an illicit drug dispensary”, although it’s understood that he hasn’t yet been charged with a specific crime. According to the BBC, Martin says he will fight any charge in court using the fact that contaminated drug supplies cause harm as the basis for his defence.
This whole escapade serves to demonstrate why legalising drugs is more preferable to decriminalising them. When a society decriminalises a drug, it’s no longer a criminal offence to possess the drug, but the supply remains illegal and in the hands of the underground. It’s a step in the right direction, but it can only go so far in reducing harm. If Vancouver legalised these drugs instead of decriminalising them, people like Martin could obtain a licence to sell them and, crucially, quality control measures would be introduced. This could go a long way when it comes to wiping out accidental overdose deaths overnight.
Setting up a drug shop selling meth in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside may seem extreme, but at this stage in the War on Drugs, we need radical ideas. After all, we’ve had a century of futile attempts to crack down on drugs, bizarrely treating a health issue as a criminal one, and all it’s resulted in is misery, death and social decay. Maybe it’s time for more radical innovators like Jerry Martin to bring some fresh ideas to the table.