As a society we now know that prohibiting drugs carries a host of unintended and undesirable consequences. These include an increase in demand, a guaranteed unregulated underground market, and great disrespect for police and laws. But the most glaring example of the failure of prohibition is the current opioid overdose crisis.

What’s the Problem?

This crisis, recently declared a public health emergency in the USA, has also killed many thousands of people in Canada over the past two years — mostly due to street opioids being adulterated with fentanyl. Here in British Columbia there have been over 1000 overdose deaths already this year. Politicians, health care professionals, and society in general are trying to find solutions.

I am a rights activist working to achieve actual freedom, with ending the prohibition on cannabis as my lead issue. My experience had led me to understand that cannabis can be an effective substitute for many people using opioids and other street drugs. And there are now numerous studies that show the same thing.

Cannabis Substitution Project care pack

Cannabis (especially edibles) can help people who want to stop using opioids.

Cannabis Can Help

It was in 2004 that I operated what was Vancouver’s second dispensary after the B.C. Compassion Club. The dispensary was on Hastings St just west of Main St — or, as it’s sometimes referred to in the area, Wasting and Pain. We used a recreational model where adults could purchase cannabis after completing our “drug war history walking tour.”

We were surprised that, before long, the majority of our customers were people from the Downtown Eastside (DTES), many of whom were addicted to opioids and other harsh street drugs. They would thank us and tell us everyday how cannabis was helping them. And in many cases, especially with strong edibles, cannabis was an effective substitute, a safe alternative, and a wonderful harm reduction tool.

Cannabis Substitution Project

Cannabis Substitution Project Logo

So, knowing that cannabis substitution is an important way to help with the crisis, I set about trying to make it happen. My target area was the Downtown Eastside. There a large, well-documented population struggling with issues of poverty, mental illness, and addiction lives. They have been scapegoats to justify drug prohibition for decades. In reality they are, in most cases, people who have suffered multiple traumas beginning in childhood, and have a difficult time functioning in workplace and social settings as a result. They are visible evidence of the harms of prohibition at the hands of street dealers and the police.

Thankfully there is an organization that gives a voice to these oppressed and stigmatized people, called VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users). I went to them first.

My idea was to give away cannabis to those who would use it, and to get the City of Vancouver to approve it and fund it. I received unanimous approval from the board at VANDU to move forward. So I presented my plan to Vancouver City Council in November 2016. However, they had no response. After lobbying them for another two months with the same results, we decided to just go ahead and start the Cannabis Substitution Project (CSP) with the help of a few dispensaries and caring members of the cannabis community.

CSP In Action

With donations in hand, I went to the office of VANDU and handed out care packs of cannabis edibles and a couple joints to those who wanted them. After doing that for a few Saturdays in a row, I arrived one Saturday to find a long lineup of people waiting for me, along with some people who wanted to volunteer their time to help out.

This has now been going on every Saturday since last February.

Along with the generous people who donate, mostly dispensaries, a dedicated group of awesome volunteers along with the staff at VANDU make the project work.

Cannabis Substitution Project donations

Answering questions and taking donations.

Over the past eight months, the Cannabis Substitution Project has dispensed over 20,000 cannabis edibles and over 10,000 joints from the VANDU office. This has definitely had a very positive impact on the people who line up every Saturday for a care pack.

The response has been terrific. Many thankful people tell us every week how much it is helping them in so many ways. We have received many comments about how the care packs are offsetting the use of the other drugs, how it is helping people sleep, helping them deal with pain, and providing an overall feeling of wellness. Cannabis is a supplement to the endocannabinoid system, the system charged with maintaining balance and homeostasis throughout the body. As such cannabis helps people with many of their health issues.

Cannabis Substitution Project lineup

A recent CSP lineup, patiently waiting.

Government Assistance Needed

It is very disappointing that our governments have played such a huge role in creating this crisis. And even more disappointing that they have not embraced this solution despite the clear evidence of its value. It is outrageous that Vancouver City Council has banned dispensaries from selling edibles — especially in today’s world with the overdose crisis killing so many people.

If our government allowed dispensaries to provide edibles it would go a long way to help save lives. And the public in general needs to know that good, strong cannabis edibles and concentrates can provide a safe, effective replacement for opioids and other dangerous street drugs that they may be currently involved with.

Until governments get on board, the caring and generous members of the cannabis community will continue to step up and save lives through the Cannabis Substitution Project.

For more information or to get involved check out the Facebook group: Cannabis Substitution Project.