Pubdate: Tue, 29 Aug 2017
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Dan Fumano
Page: A5


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 that 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.

Vancouver police rarely carry out enforcement on any of the city's
storefront dispensaries, and contrary to rumours, 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.

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 have overlooked Blyth's lack of licences as she and
her team attempt to 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 said she believed the police visited Sunday simply to learn more
about what was going on, 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, the operation
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 for cannabis as
an instrument to reduce opioid use, including a recent academic paper
published in the Harm Reduction Journal by a Vancouver Island-based

"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," Blyth said.
"We're just trying to save lives, just like all the frontline 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 said he came to
the DTES Monday "in support of High Hopes."

BCEHS has tried new initiatives to address the overdose issue, such as
its Paramedic Bike Squad. Launched last month, bicycle-riding
paramedics now navigate DTES alleys quickly to respond to distress

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

"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 the society 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?"
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt