Pop-up pot dispensary an ‘outside the box’ approach to opioid crisis

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Chatter was spreading online and through the Downtown Eastside on Sunday and Monday, a rumour about cops “busting” an unlicensed pop-up cannabis dispensary.

The dispensary in question is different from the roughly 60 unlicensed pot shops running in Vancouver, many of which are slick commercial operations. The High Hopes Foundation, a small booth which opened this summer in the Downtown Eastside, is run by the people behind the Overdose Prevention Society and works toward the same goal of saving lives as an escalating overdose crisis rocks the city and province. The society has operated a supervised-injection site since last year, administering drugs to reverse overdoses, but their new High Hopes project aims to use cannabis to help drug users reduce their dependency on powerful opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.

Considering how rarely the Vancouver Police carry out enforcement on any of the city’s storefront dispensaries, it seemed strange to imagine a raid at this little non-profit booth run by front-line public health workers.

But Overdose Prevention Society founder Sarah Blyth said Monday there was no “bust” or “raid.” Officers visited the booth over the weekend and asked questions, but didn’t arrest anyone or seize anything.

On Monday, representatives of B.C. Emergency Health Services visited High Hopes to show their support, and a Vancouver Police spokesman was eager to dispel any rumours of a “bust,” with both emphasizing their support for the work of Blyth and her peers.

Such a display of support from government employees for the Overdose Prevention Society — effectively a rogue project operating outside the legal health-care system — illustrates the all-hands-on-deck mentality of first responders, as traditional approaches prove unable to stop a public health crisis. 

Retail marijuana sales remain illegal under Canadian law, whether at High Hopes or any other Vancouver dispensary, even those with city-issued business licences. But in the midst of an overdose epidemic on track to kill 400 people this year in Vancouver alone, first responders are willing to overlook Blyth’s lack of licences if she and her team can help slow the mounting death toll.

Across B.C., 780 people died from suspected illicit drug overdoses in the first half of this year, the B.C. Coroners Service reported.

Blyth believed the police visited Sunday simply to learn more about what was going on there, so to that end, she invited journalists down Monday, she said, to “make sure that everybody’s aware of what we’re doing and why.”

The Overdose Prevention Society launched last September as a tent in the Downtown Eastside Street Market, creating an unofficial “pop-up supervised-injection site.” In the 12 months since then, the OPS upgraded from a tent to a trailer, and received support from the provincial Ministry of Health.

The affiliated High Hopes cannabis dispensary started operating a few months ago, Blyth said, providing alternatives aiming to reduce dependency on powerful and dangerous opioids.

“We have the overdose prevention site, and this is kind of the next step,” Blyth said, gesturing to the table featuring cannabis capsules, oils and edibles. The products are donated by local dispensaries, she said, and sold for reduced prices or distributed for free. A growing body of research has shown promising results with cannabis being used to reduce opioid use, including, most recently, an academic paper published in the Harm Reduction Journal by a Vancouver Island-based researcher.  

“These are some natural options. Ideally the government would step up and provide more options for pain relief, like opiate replacement programs so people are getting opiates without having to buy it from people on the street that don’t care if they live or die,” she said. “We’re just trying to save lives, just like all the front-line workers, including the police.”

The unprecedented scale of the crisis requires “outside the box” approaches and trying new things, said Ryan Stefani, a paramedic specialist with B.C. Emergency Health Services, who came to the DTES Monday “in support of High Hopes.” BCEHS has been trying new initiatives in response to the overdose crisis, such as the Paramedic Bike Squad which launched last month allowing bicycle-riding paramedics to navigate the DTES alleys quickly and respond to distress calls.

With ambulance and other first responder resources stretched to their limit, the work of Blyth and the OPS is vital, even if it’s not strictly legal, paramedics said.

“There’s components of what (Blyth) offers that is just invaluable that we can’t offer as primary health workers,” Stefani said.

Vancouver Police spokesman Sgt. Jason Robillard said he wanted to clarify there had been no police “bust” of OPS or High Hopes, and said the VPD supports Blyth’s efforts.

“The way we look at it is: yes it’s illegal, but drug addiction is a health problem,” Robillard said. “We’re in a crisis here. And what you do in a crisis is you triage. What’s more important: saving lives or enforcing the law?”

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