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‘We don’t understand it’: Advocates slam Vancouver police raid of low-barrier cannabis program

Click to play video: '2021 was worst year in B.C.’s toxic drug overdose crisis'
2021 was worst year in B.C.’s toxic drug overdose crisis
The BC Coroners Service has released the toxic drug death data for 2021, when 2,224 people lost their lives to overdose. Catherine Urquhart reports. – Feb 9, 2022

Harm reduction advocates are decrying the police raid of an unlicensed cannabis distribution program that had been operating out of an RV in downtown Vancouver, saying their members will likely be forced to go back to using toxic street drugs.

The low-barrier Cannabis Substitution Program had been selling high-dose edibles and other products to people as a safer alternative to opioids out of an RV at Main and Cordova streets for the last year and a half.

The program’s founder, Neil Magnuson, told Global News the RV was raided and towed away last Thursday by police.

“We don’t understand it. It’s certainly the last thing the neighbourhood needed,” Magnuson said, adding officers have been “well aware” of the program since it began.

“We’re the last place there where people in the neighbourhood can get proper cannabis, (who) are trying to get off of opioids. This is the best harm reduction solution available on the Downtown Eastside.”

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VPD spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin told Global News via email the raid is part of an “active drug investigation,” and did not provide details despite further requests.

In an emailed statement, the city said all cannabis retail stores require a provincial licence and a municipal business licence to operate.

They also need a fixed address, as well as land use approval, which, in Vancouver, is a development permit.

“While high dose edibles are not specifically mentioned in Vancouver’s drug policy framework, the City supports harm reduction as a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use,” the city said.

Magnuson said he has not applied for a provincial licence because the program provides cannabis for medical purposes.

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He said he applied to Health Canada for a licence to sell low-barrier medical cannabis in late 2020, and recently learned that is being denied. The program’s lawyers are working on a response, he said.

The department’s reasoning, he said, was not all of the program’s cannabis products come from regulated sources, and its edibles have a THC potency above the legal limit.

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“Which is ludicrous because we are replacing people’s use of fentanyl and other hard drugs, getting them off the risky stuff that can kill them,” he said. “Withdrawal is the big barrier that keeps people addicted and high-dose edibles get people through withdrawal — that’s what’s so valuable about it.

“These are people who have gotten stuck because trauma happens to people. So many people are ashamed of their addiction and don’t tell anyone … these people need to have discreet access to cannabis high-dose edibles.”

In the meantime, the program is operating out of a tent at the same location. Magnuson said the situation is precarious for its approximate 260 members because many of them don’t have contact information or reliable access to the internet, were it to relocate.

“We have people telling us they will go back to heroin to get to sleep at night, (and) another woman saying that if we aren’t here, she’s going to have to go to cocaine. We are worried, and our clients are worried,” he said.

“These are people that are suffering, and looking for relief. They have been finding it with what we provide for them, and without it, they will be back in that poisoned drug supply.”

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Click to play video: 'B.C. records 165 illicit drug deaths in March'
B.C. records 165 illicit drug deaths in March

Karen Ward, a drug policy consultant for the city and a longtime community advocate, said she is concerned about what will happen if the program were to shutter for good.

“People are using this service to be safer. So, it’s really, really upsetting. What are people supposed to do? They can’t afford (other options), so they’re going to use street drugs. They can’t afford it so they’re going to do some kind of crime. They can’t afford it so they’re going to be out on the street,” she told Global News.

“They’re leaving people with no other options but the ones that are going to kill them. It was harm reduction in a very direct way.”

According to the latest government data, an average of 5.3 deaths per day were recorded in March due to illicit drug toxicity.

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Click to play video: 'B.C. chief coroner addresses deadliest month for drug overdoses in province’s history'
B.C. chief coroner addresses deadliest month for drug overdoses in province’s history

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