After more than a month of waiting for the motion to hit chamber, Vancouver’s city council has voted in favour of changing zoning bylaws in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood.
On May 24, NPA city councillor Rebecca Bligh advanced a motion to amend a bylaw excluding cannabis retail and distribution from the city's most impoverished neighbourhood to allow for “well-considered exceptions”.
The bylaw was created in 2015 as the result of several public hearings on licensing rules for medical cannabis dispensaries. Section 11 of the city’s zoning and development regulations originally ruled that no cannabis retail hubs could exist in the DTES (pictured below) neighbourhood to limit the proximity of dispensaries to “youth and vulnerable populations”.
An exception was written for sites with a property line on Hastings Street or Main Street. These shops also could not be situated within 300 metres of a school, community centre, or another dispensary.
Many argued this exclusionary zone was unfairly limiting access to cannabis in the neighbourhood and exacerbating the city’s overdose crisis, the epicentre of which lies in the heart of the DTES.
The motion passed unanimously—with an amendment regarding a consultation process involving the provincial cannabis authority, the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCRB), and local grassroots organizations like the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (Vandu).
With a blanket prohibition lifted, the city is now capable of approving “well-considered” cannabis retail dispensaries, as well as social enterprises and compassion club models aimed at reducing the impact of dangerous drugs.
“People are trying to live through a nightmare with no choices,” said Blyth in her testimony. “Buying cannabis should be simple. Cannabis is legal. But it's never been easy for a homeless person to get legal, medicinal cannabis […] We're pushing people back to the criminal market.”
Strong opposition from Vancouver Coastal Health
Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer at VCH was one of three from the institution to express strong opposition to the motion.
“Harm reduction efforts are best delivered through public health models, not retail sectors,” she told councillors.
Daly’s concerns with the amendment were two-fold. First, she said there isn't enough scientific data, yet, to support the notion that cannabis reduces overdoses in opioid-dependent individuals. Secondly, she believes retail-style dispensaries won’t achieve the end goal of providing safe access, but rather create more public health issues.
Her colleague, Dr. Emily Newhouse, echoed this sentiment, adding that cannabis can “trigger psychosis”, “impact school performance”, and encourage "gangsterism”, if left unchecked.
The overarching concern of VCH was centred on potential negative impacts on the broader population.
In her testimony, Daly said distributing cannabis as a harm reduction effort must be done in a way that: “maximizes the benefits, and minimizes harms” and “selling it through retail distributer is not the way to do that.”
Daly also said cannabis retailers using terms like “medicinal” and “dispensary” are misnomers that serve to allow entrepreneurs to make profit off of the sale of illicit cannabis. She further pointed to the federal government’s already implemented medical program as a solution.
As a longtime harm reduction worker and founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, Blyth spoke to her firsthand experience. She reminded the council that Health Canada’s medical program relies on credit cards, fixed mailing addresses, and costly prescriptions, which serve as barriers to access for street entrenched individuals.
“In the Downtown Eastside, to get a medical cannabis it's literally impossible. If you're homeless, or you don't have an address, or you don't have a credit card, you can’t order it,” she said. “Most of its ordered online and it's hard to get a prescription in the first place. The whole process is very costly. It can cost up to 700 bucks just to get one from a doctor. So, it's very, very difficult.”
Blyth sees up to 700 individuals while working in the DTES each day—providing access to cannabis, supervised consumption sites, and overdose relief.
Daly also argued that there is “no crisis of access” in the DTES. She added that plenty of “illicit cannabis” circulates in the neighbourhood.
“If you saw the stuff that that is sold on the corner on the streets, really the easiest to access, it's not high grade medical cannabis, or even what people would consider quality cannabis,” responded Blyth when asked by councillors for thoughts on Daly’s comments.
As for the research, the former nationwide prohibition on cannabis means scientific data has yet to be compiled on the plant as addiction treatment or overdose prevention. Currently, however, OPS is working alongside the city’s lead researchers, including University of British Columbia professor Dr. M-J Milloy and the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, to compile more information and clinical evidence to support the overwhelming anecdotal indication of cannabis' positive impacts.
Testimony from frontline workers
Contrary to VCH’s testimony, many argued the prohibition only compounds the neighbourhood’s overdose crisis and, should it be available to a drug-addicted population, cannabis could serve as relief for many conditions.
Dana MacInnis, a frontline worker who has worked with OPS for over a year, says he is asked daily by locals where to source cannabis for helping ease physical pain, withdrawal sickness, and sleep.
“I've seen many people benefit from the use of cannabis in treating their opiate withdrawal or their opiate use. I think that without it, there would be a lot more people struggling. A lot more money going into the hands of drug dealers,” he said.
“Unfortunately, many people that are struggling with addiction in the Downtown Eastside. They’re living outside and it is near impossible for them to sleep. Yet, when they use cannabis they are able to sleep at night because they're able to deal with a lot of the pain that usually started them using opiates in the first place.”
Marion Allaart, the executive director of the drug user advocacy group Vandu, also spoke during the hearing. Her organization hosts a weekly substitution event for locals in the DTES headed by activist Neil Magnuson. Allaart says the demand for cannabis in the past year has spiked—where once the events would draw lines of 90 to 100 people, they now see between 250 to 300 residents of the neighborhood waiting for free cannabis joints, edibles, and topicals.
She took the opportunity to reiterate the integral relationship between organizations like VCH and grassroots efforts, explaining that while research is imperative, it’s frontline workers who see the immediate needs of their community.
“We like Vancouver Coast Health. They fund us. We’re their fan club. But we just happen to do things in a different way,” she said.
“Everyone has their own job to do, but it’s a lot easier to see what works from the frontline because it’s immediately evident. We want to see results on the street.”
“It comes down to choice”
Blyth took the opportunity in her testimony to drive home the point that while research “absolutely needs to be further developed,” this motion really comes down to providing fair, equal access to DTES residents.
“What it comes down to is choice—people in the Downtown Eastside being able to have choices on what they use to reduce pain at night, use for sleep, or instead of opiates,” she said.
“This is about making sure that they have the personal choices [...] that are same as those of other people in the city. It doesn't make a lot of sense why the Downtown Eastside would have more restrictions than other communities.”