VPD executes arrest and search warrant on drug testing operation

Multiple arrests of drug user advocates sparks controversy on substance use policing

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This is a photo of the outside of Dana Larsen’s mushroom dispensary. The bright pink and orange sign on the storefront reads “Mushroom Dispensary, Coca Leaf Cafe.”
PHOTO: Amirul Anirban / The Peak

By: Olivia Sherman, News Writer

On November 1, the director and founder of Get Your Drugs Tested, Dana Larsen, was arrested after a search warrant from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) was executed. The VPD raided Larsen’s three Medicinal Mushroom dispensary locations. He was released without charges or conditions seven hours after his arrest. The arrest and search warrant came just days after the VPD arrested co-founders of the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF), Jeremy Kalicum and Eris Nyx. The Peak reached out to Larsen for more information. 

Larsen, a lifelong drug advocate, started Vancouver’s third cannabis dispensary in 2008. After its closure in 2019, he had the idea to rebrand the East Hastings dispensary to check drugs for harmful substances, something largely inaccessible to many people who use drugs. Get Your Drugs Tested uses a Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) machine to scan for harmful substances contaminating drugs. The operation is funded through sales of psychedelics from Larsen’s other businesses. He keeps his drug testing services free to customers, as he told The Peak in 2021, “I wouldn’t want to feel that, for the lack of a $5 bill, someone had an overdose and died.” To date, Get Your Drugs Tested has tested over 60,000 drug samples, “making [them] the world’s busiest drug analysis centre” of street drugs, Larsen said. 

“It just seemed to me, with the drug overdose death crisis happening in Vancouver and around the world, it’s something we can do to save some lives, to bring information and accountability in the drug market, and to push and shame, the provincial and federal government into offering this service properly,” he continued, noting the irony of funding this service through the sales of marijuana and psilocybin (magic) mushrooms. “It’s always drug users looking after each other.” 

Larsen said the arrest and warrant were “unexpected,” as he is normally on amicable terms with the VPD. The warrant allowed the VPD to seize dimethyltryptamine (DMT), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mushrooms, and coca leaf, which is used to make cocaine. All of these substances are naturally derived. “They really were quite aggressive in seizing these things,” Larsen noted. 

He suspects the arrest may have been politically motivated. Larsen said the investigation on him and the arrested DULF members began earlier this year when a cannabis company claimed Health Canada granted them permission to produce and distribute cocaine. “The story was used to attack the BC NDP, and because we sell coca leaf, we got in the news as well,” despite coca leaves and cocaine having different effects and uses. Coca leaves have been used for chewing and teas for centuries, with many Indigenous Peoples of South America cultivating the plant for medical purposes. The drug began to be refined, such as into powdered form, and sold as a stimulant over time. However, the effects of coca leaf versus the refined drug cocaine are drastically different — coca leaf has a mildly stimulating effect akin to coffee, but the stigma surrounding the leaf remains. Larsen suggested the VPD investigation, resulting in the confiscation of his coca leaf product, began after the Health Canada controversy. 

Larsen also added the raid on his businesses was not a good use of resources or time, noting an estimated 2,000 hours of investigation and $150,000 of expenses, only for him to reopen again days later. 

“The fact that I was released after seven hours, with no charges and no conditions, also shows prosecutors are not choosing to go after me,” Larsen said. This led him to speculate the raid and arrests were caused by an outside influence. He suggested the arrest and raid were executed in order to “push off criticism” of the VPD’s response to Vancouver’s drug policy. “So, they come in and do these raids as a way of quieting their opponents.” 

Larsen said Get Your Drugs Tested is planning a major expansion in operations, including two new locations and a mobile drug testing vehicle. 

Despite being funded purely through the sale of illegal substances, Get Your Drugs Tested offers same-day results, compared to government operations, which can take up to a week for processing. He said while it is a considerable feat that a grassroots organization overtakes a provincial mandate, Larsen said “it’s also really unacceptable” that the province isn’t more funded and prepared. 

Get Your Drugs Tested also works directly with Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Centre on Substance Use, providing both hands-on training for drug analysis methods and data on substance use. Vancouver Coastal Health recently designated Get Your Drugs Tested as an overdose prevention centre, allowing them legal permits to accept and handle illicit drugs, an act otherwise considered illegal possession and trafficking of substances. “Although we’re a group funded entirely by cannabis and mushrooms sold without permits and outside the legal system, we’re still kind of integrated into the legal system,” Larsen said.

The Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) was also raided by the VPD, and its two founding members, Jeremy Kalicum and Eris Nyx, were arrested. DULF has been public about its operations for a long time, which include buying drugs off the black market, testing them for harmful substances, and distributing them to locals. DULF received $200,000 of funding from Vancouver Coastal Health, but that contract has stopped as of October 31.

“We live in a society where drug users are consistently demonized and attacked and marginalized,” both by people and by the government, the latter of which subjects people who use drugs to “incarceration, punishment, humiliation, demonization,” Larsen said.

Despite the stigma against drugs and people who use drugs, Larsen still has hope for the future. He noted people who normally would not be pro-safe supply or drug policy advocates are becoming avid activists after losing a loved one to policies that failed them. He also said fear-based and abstinence-based education surrounding drug use is not effective for teaching people about safe ways to use or avoid substances, as it can create an environment of division and repulsion, as well as recklessness. “This crisis is helping to radicalize people and bring them out and lose their fear.”

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