It's been a brutal year in Vancouver since Sarah Blyth and a team of volunteers first pitched an unsanctioned supervised injection tent in a back alley notorious for overdoses.
Though they've reversed over a thousand ODs, and their DIY approach has now been replicated in other major cities, the opioid crisis shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Vancouver's 2017 death toll recently surpassed last year's total.
So, in the relentless battle against fentanyl and other super-potent synthetic opioids, Blyth's team has recently added a new tool to their overdose prevention arsenal. Namely, they've started giving out free weed products and other non-opioid pain alternatives.
"It's not heroin, it's an opioid substitution," Blyth told VICE by phone from her Saturday post at the Downtown Eastside market. "We didn't ask the bureaucracy or anyone, but we're trying anything and everything because we're tired of seeing people die."
The move follows the creation of a foundation called High Hopes, which also does fentanyl testing at the pop-up site. Since volunteers first started offering weed by donation, the site has been visited by a few local political candidates and Vision Vancouver's director of communications.
Blyth said they've been offering drug users bud, edibles, and cannabis extract capsules as a way to treat withdrawal and wean people off potentially deadly opioids. She said that untreated pain and trauma make it unrealistic for some users to cut back without a substitute. A recent University of Victoria study found weed substitution has "significant positive impacts on public health and safety."
Blyth says at first she was skeptical that adding another substance to the mix could help entrenched drug users beat their habit. "I wasn't totally convinced because [weed] makes me paranoid," Blyth said. "It was a lot of conversations, talking to licensed producers, readings stats and data, and hearing stories of people who have gotten off harder drugs with other drugs like marijuana."
Blyth told VICE some of the capsules contain THC, the chemical that makes people feel high, while others only contain cannabidiol, or CBD, which has anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory properties without the psychotropic effects. They've also been giving some users kratom, a legal herbal painkiller that does not have the same withdrawal symptoms as pharmaceutical painkillers.
"We just decided what the hell—the mayor's calling for access to safe drugs, well here you are," she said.
So far Vancouver police aren't planning to shut down the operation, even though weed won't be legal in Canada until 2018 at the earliest. "Our position is that drug addiction is a health problem. Our main priority is reducing overdoses—not shutting down programs that seem to be working," Sergeant Jason Robillard told CBC.
However, interactions with individual cops have been mixed so far. Blyth said one officer recently asked her team to close shop, and took photos of volunteers distributing weed.
Blyth says she's started a conversation with the city, in effort to formalize what they're doing. "It's not what the medical industry is used to, but it works, so why not?"
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