Last month, the Georgia Straight broke the story about an activist-led initiative that was providing residents of the Downtown Eastside with natural alternatives to hard drugs.
Yesterday (August 28), Overdose Prevention Society co-founder Sarah Blyth held a press conference at the Downtown Eastside Street Market (62 East Hastings Street) to launch the High Hopes Foundation.
Huddled under a green tent and surrounded by market volunteers, peer workers, and supporters from the community, Blyth explained to members of the media that the initiative was "just another part of the tool kit for saving lives".
"This is all about showing that we are here providing options for people," she said.
The tent is located to the right of the entrance to the market, and will be manned by a market volunteer daily. In addition to offering natural alternatives, staff at the tent will facilitate drug testing for users that want to check their drugs for fentanyl.
All items have been donated by local dispensaries, and most products have been priced around $2. (Those looking to purchase more than a one-time-use item can by an eighth, or 3.5 grams of cannabis, for $20.) All profits will go directly back into the foundation to cover things like volunteer honorariums.
Other options include pre-rolled joints and kratom, a legal, herbal drug that has been shown to help treate opiate addiction.
Blyth highlighted a selection of infused gummies, each containing 80 milligrams of THC, and said they were popular among users who wanted to ease pain without using heroin or other hard drugs.
Blyth added that the foundation also exists to facilitate access to detox.
"Some people may come to us and they may say they want to get sober, so we can give them options to detox, and we know all of the different places in the neighbourhood that help people," she said.
"Some people just can't get off drugs—but they might be able to smoke marijuana, so we're going to give them the best product that we can possibly get to help get them off of harder drugs, to give them some options so they don't die at home alone."
Melanie, a market employee who will be working at the tent from time to time, told the Straight that cannabis helped her stop using seven different prescriptions drugs, including methadone.
Taryn Lee of Miss Envy Botanicals has been assisting Blyth with the foundation, and provided her own insight about using cannabis for pain relief.
"I work in the cannabis industry and I got into it based on the fact that I've been overprescribed drugs by doctors that weren't necessarily for the ailments that I was dealing with," she said.
Lee used cannabis to stop using prescriptions drugs and continues to use it to manage daily pain from multiple car accidents. By providing residents of the Downtown Eastside with access to affordable medicine, she hopes to help give them safer options than what's currently available on the street.
"We're offering them a [healthier], holistic, all-natural alternative to harmful pharmaceutical drugs. How many people standing here think that heroin and crack and fentanyl are better options than cannabis?"
Larsen, who has also supported the foundation with product donations and has assisted cannabis activist Neil Magnuson with a similar program at VANDU, told the Straight that High Hopes is "an idea whose time has very much come."
"There are two studies out of the U.S and a recent one out of Canada showing that access to dispensaries reduces opioid use, reduces overdose deaths, and so it's the safer alternative," he said.
"Not only is it more humane; it's way cheaper. Dollars shouldn't really be a factor, but if you're saving people's lives and stopping them from having an overdose in the first place, that seems a lot safer than trying to come in after the fact and revive people," he said.
Larsen added that while Blyth's initiative may put the Vancouver Police Department in a tricky position, he's not sure what motivated them to ask her to "pack up" the tent this past weekend.
In an email response to the Straight, Sergeant Jason Robillard said the VPD had not been involved in a "bust" and argued that "misinformation" had been circulating.
"The peer overdose reduction site is supported by the VPD," he wrote. "We are working with other community partners to help reducing over doses [sic] in Vancouver."
Blyth said that by officially launching High Hopes with a press conference and "putting it out in the open", she hopes police won't feel as compelled to interrupt the service again.
Either way, Larsen wants to know why they instructed Blyth on more than one occasion to stop operating the tent.
"If the city wants to do that, than maybe the mayor should come down and tell them that this is wrong and they should stop doing it," Larsen said. "I think they're doing amazing work here."
To donate to the High Hopes Foundation, visit www.gofundme.com/hi-hopes-foundation/.