A Downtown Eastside activist and a local entrepreneur are hoping to spearhead the first nonprofit organization of its kind with support from Vancouver’s cannabis community.
The vocal support of Sarah Blyth, the founder of the Overdose Prevention Society for grassroots, peer-led harm reduction led to the establishment of several safe-consumption sites in Vancouver and beyond.
Unfortunately, the ongoing overdose crisis hasn’t slowed—numbers for 2017 are set to double last year’s count of 935 overdose deaths provincewide—so when Blyth, who doesn’t use cannabis, came across an American study that found that states with legalized marijuana saw a 33-percent reduction in overdose deaths, she decided to explore the concept further.
“I’ve had lots of people come to me with all kinds of different alternatives [to hard drugs], and at no point did I ever set out saying, ‘Wahoo, cannabis!’ ” Blyth told the Georgia Straight one recent July morning at a street market on East Hastings Street, where she was dropping off some freshly baked cannabis-infused muffins. “But with the evidence and the proof that I’m seeing, you can’t really deny it.
“If you can provide a cheap medicinal option, like one of these muffins for $2 instead of crack or cocaine, there’s a lot of people down here who will take it because it gives them enough of a body high to hold off on other drugs for a while.”
Mutual friends connected Blyth with Taryn Lee of local cannabis-lifestyle brand, Miss Envy Botanicals, and together the two have been baking infused edibles to distribute daily at the Downtown Eastside Street Market.
Lee donates her line’s THC-infused coconut and olive oils to make muffins, granola bars, frittatas, bannock, and other snacks and meal replacements as alternatives to hard drugs for users at the market. By picking healthy ingredients, they’re also able to help addicts who may not be preoccupied with the idea of food to get some much-needed nutrition into their bodies.
“This was an opportunity for the cannabis industry to get involved and do something,” said Lee.
Beyond providing users with edibles and prerolled joints donated by local dispensaries, Blyth and Lee are also offering access to alternatives like kratom, a herb with opioidlike properties, and coca-leaf tea, which can take the edge off for users in the throes of a crack binge.
Their plan to “saturate the market” with natural options for users is just the beginning of what they hope will come to be known as the High Hopes Foundation. “Patient care is our company’s main priority,” Lee said. “We’re hoping to throw a series of events that people will sponsor, and they’re all going to help get this foundation off the ground.”
Adding to their plan to implement mobile cannabis-dispensing units throughout the city, the duo hope to recruit doctors who can help users transition off opioids and other hard drugs with cannabis.
“Ideally, what we’re trying to do is set up a program with 10 people [hard-drug users] and give them as much as they need for the day [in order] to get some data and then come up with some evidence to support what we’re doing,” Blyth said.
In her search for support, Lee said, representatives at local cannabis brands and dispensaries “didn’t even bat an eye” when she asked them to participate, with many offering to donate products on the spot.
She noted that it can be challenging for entrepreneurs and companies in the cannabis industry to take part in charitable efforts because of the stigma the plant still has for some people.
Lee said it was a “no-brainer” to ally with Blyth, whose efforts in the community have arguably led to changes in the way various levels of government are approaching the overdose crisis here.
“I have so much admiration for what she’s done, and that’s a big part of why we decided to go ahead and do this. It’s a very well-deserving cause.”
City bylaws prohibit dispensaries in Vancouver from selling edibles, but Blyth is confident in the precedent she has set as an innovator.
“We were the model for the overdose-prevention sites, but I think we also have the leeway, respect, and relationships with people that are using drugs, that people know we know what we’re doing,” she said.
Both said that the feedback from users has been positive. As they chatted at the market, at least five people thanked Blyth and Lee for their morning snack.
Take Zoe, for example (surname withheld by request). A Downtown Eastside resident who has been using heroin for the past seven years, she suffers from a variation of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which, she said, causes extreme pain in her muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Before Zoe began using heroin, she had a federal licence to grow her own medical marijuana. She said she wasn’t able to renew her licence and her lack of access to cannabis played a part in her turn to hard drugs. Although she said she’s still using opioids, she has found that cannabis helps with withdrawal, and she gladly accepted edibles from Blyth and Lee.
“If I had [the supply and the opportunity], I think I would go back to cannabis,” she said. “It’s definitely the lesser of two evils.”
To donate to the High Hopes Foundation, visit www.gofundme.com/hi-hopes-foundation/.