VICTORIA — The New Democrats ran for cover this week over the news that they had known, long before they dealt with the problem, that advocates of so-called safe supply were buying drugs on the black market.
The government admitted that was happening just two weeks ago when it terminated a $200,000 contract with the Drug User Liberation Front.
The aptly named front was buying up cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine on the dark web, sending it for vetting at labs at two provincial universities, then selling the product to members of a “compassion club” from a storefront on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“That particular organization has had its contract cancelled,” Premier David Eby announced Oct. 24.
“It is unfortunate because they were providing essential life-saving work. But they were also breaking the law, which we will not tolerate.”
Eby also maintained that “as soon as I was aware that this organization was trafficking in drugs and breaking the law, the instructions went out to the health authority to discontinue the group’s funding.”
Alas for Eby, a news story this week exposed how the government had for many months been tolerating an illicit drug trade within the bosom of the safe supply program.
The well-documented report by Fran Yanor of the Northern Beat online news service drew on testimony before an all-party committee of the legislature back in June 2022.
One witness disclosed how: “The Drug User Liberation Front is buying drugs from the dark web and having them checked … boxing them up and letting people know what they are.
Another witness warned: “The reality is that the drugs are tested, but they are still bought through the black market, and they still support organized crime.”
When the story was published, Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside mounted the first line of defence for the government.
The testimony about the illicit trade in safe supply drugs was delivered to “an all-party committee that was requested by the Opposition,” she told reporters.
Her point being that Opposition members on the committee got the information at the same time as the government members. The implication being that while the government failed to act, neither did the Opposition do anything about the revelations.
Never mind that the Opposition hasn’t the power to cut off contracts, order investigations or otherwise crack down on wrongdoing.
The blame-the-Opposition defence backfired because when the revelations were first reported last month, it was only because of investigative work by B.C. United MLA Elenore Sturko.
Sturko, speaking to reporters Wednesday, also pointed out that the committee was not made aware the Front was getting funds for some of its programs from the provincial government.
“We did not actually know that they were receiving that funding,” she told reporters. “We only found out about the public money when I brought it forward to Niki Sharma in October.”
On Thursday, Sharma, the attorney general, mounted the second line of defence for the government.
Her involvement was central to the question of what the government knew and when it knew it. Before Sharma was appointed attorney general, she chaired the legislature committee that heard the testimony about the black-market trade in safe supply drugs.
“We took our job seriously,” Sharma told the house during question period. “I’m proud of the work that we did across parties. Very rarely is there a space in this building where we work across party lines to come up with resolutions.”
From that starting point, she then blasted the Opposition for raising questions about the potentially criminal nature of the buying and selling of illicit drugs under the guise of maintaining a safe supply.
“I find it troubling that the Opposition is politicizing an issue that’s costing 13,000 people to die in B.C. to this day,” said the attorney general. “The opioid crisis is hitting communities across this province. That they would use this issue to make cheap political shots is shameful.”
Firing back for the Opposition was Mike de Jong, himself a former attorney general.
“I don’t know that I have ever heard an attorney general make the observation that it is inappropriate for an official Opposition to pose questions about criminal activity in the province of B.C.” he said.
“The attorney was the chair of a committee that, over a year ago, heard evidence, DULF is buying drugs from the dark web, having them checked, boxing them up and letting people have them. It’s absurd what the government is trying to peddle in terms of what it knew and when.”
De Jong called for the appointment of a special prosecutor, given the potential involvement of the government in the now pending police investigation of the Front.
Special prosecutors are usually appointed by the independent assistant deputy attorney general for criminal justice, not the attorney general. And in this case, what is so far reported as a drug investigation could well be under federal jurisdiction.
But from what has already been reported, there’s a clear need for an independent investigation into what the New Democrats knew about the black-market trade in safe supply drugs, when they knew it, and what they did about it.
Vaughn Palmer: Federal jurisdictional creep causes tension on housing in B.C.
Vaughn Palmer: NDP rush job on rezoning leaves little time for B.C. cities to adjust
Vaughn Palmer: B.C. premier speaks for parents after sex offender goes missing
Support our journalism: Our in-depth journalism is possible thanks to the support of our subscribers. For just $3.50 per week, you can get unlimited, ad-lite access to The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post and 13 other Canadian news sites. Support us by subscribing today: The Vancouver Sun | The Province.