An unlicensed pop-up cannabis dispensary in city’s Downtown Eastside that supplies drug users with free cannabis to reduce dependence on powerful opioids such as heroin and fentanyl was raided by Vancouver police Friday morning.
Sarah Blyth, a Vancouver city council candidate and founder of the front-line Overdose Prevention Society, says VPD officers entered the site at 62 East Hastings Street just after 10 a.m. Nobody was arrested, but police took all the cannabis that was on display at the High Hopes Foundation kiosk.
“They said they were taking it because cannabis is illegal,” Blyth said.
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 then, the OPS upgraded from a tent to a trailer, and received support from the provincial Ministry of Health.
Across B.C., 780 people died from suspected illicit drug overdoses in the first half of this year, the B.C. Coroners Service reported.
The affiliated High Hopes cannabis dispensary started operating a few months ago.
High Hopes also received a visit from the VPD last month but officers just asked questions and left without confiscating product.
With roughly 60 unlicensed marijuana dispensaries operating in Vancouver, Blyth is confused as to why police would target one that is providing relief to city’s most vulnerable citizens.
“People with mental health issues, PTSD, living in an alley … they are looking for pain relief and it’s hard to come right off drugs. There are not enough detox centres, so we are educating people and trying to give them an alternative that wasn’t going to kill them,” said Blyth. “(High Hopes) was well-known to the police and to the city. It’s been a very good program.”
VPD spokesperson Jason Doucette said the product, which included two plastic bottles of an unknown powder, was seized for destruction.
“The cannabis (still an illegal substance) was in plain view at the market and was seized for destruction. Although our officers tried to identify the owner of the cannabis products being openly sold, no one took responsibility for it. This removed the opportunity for our officers to collect enough information from which they could base their next course of action on,” Doucette said in an emailed statement.
“We have seen this type of trafficking of cannabis in other parts of Vancouver and have taken enforcement action after informal attempts to resolve the issue(s) were not successful. Selling cannabis in this manner is illegal now and will continue to be illegal after cannabis is decriminalized in October.”
Friday’s police action brought a strong rebuke from health officials dealing with B.C. opioid crisis.
“While the public debate will focus on whether the bust was actually legal, the sad truth is that this action targets a small grassroots effort to help people struggling with addiction. It is punitive, compounds trauma and suffering, and contributes nothing to community safety,” tweeted Dr. Mark Tyndall, the deputy provincial health officer and executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
The B.C. Centre of Substance Use said the police response made “little sense.”
“Research has shown that cannabis holds promise in reducing cravings for opioids. In the middle of public health emergency, we should support interventions that could help reduce overdose and keep people alive,” the BCCSU said in a statement.
Hours after the seizure, High Hopes’s supply was replenished by marijuana advocate Dana Larsen, who donated bags of cannabis product to the foundation.
With files from Dan Fumano
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