An online video showing Vancouver police seizing marijuana from an overdose prevention site is raising eyebrows of advocates and medical experts alike, spiking conversation on the policing of certain drugs.
Friday’s seizure, caught on camera by Overdose Prevention Society founder Sarah Blyth, involved a table display of cannabis products marked for sale near a pop-up supervised consumption site in the Downtown Eastside.
In the video, Blyth – who’s running for council in Vancouver – is heard yelling that the seizure is a personal vendetta against those suffering from substance abuse.
“Good for you guys taking opiate replacement for people,” she says.
— Sarah Blyth (@sarahblyth) September 14, 2018
A police officer is then heard reminding her that marijuana is still illegal, until Oct. 17.
Vancouver Police Const. Jason Doucette told Black Press Media Friday afternoon that they were left with little choice after no one came forward as owner of the pot.
According to Blyth, the cannabis table is part of a full-time harm-reduction program called High Hopes, which has helped hundreds of people move away from opioid use since it opened in August 2017.
“We give people something that we know is not going to kill them as an alternative to harder drugs,” she told Black Press Media.
While Canadian laws currently only allow dispensaries licensed for medicinal purposes to operate, Blyth said police know that the program exists, calling the seizure a step back in time by at least 100 years.
“It should not be a criminal issue, we need to move past that. We need to move to a place where drug users are not criminalized,” she said.
The Downtown Eastside has seen the brunt of the overdose crisis since being declared a public health emergency in 2016. More than 878 people have died from illicit drug overdoses this year in B.C. – 231 of those deaths in Vancouver alone.
“It’s a bit shocking that we’re the lowest-barrier program in a neighbourhood where people are living homeless in extreme poverty, are heavily policed all day long and living in terrible conditions with mental health issues – and that they would target that group of people,” she said.
VPD officers seized cannabis products displayed for sale today at an unmanned table at the market at 62 E. Hastings Street. No one would claim ownership of the products, so they were taken to the #VPD property office for destruction.
— Vancouver Police (@VancouverPD) September 14, 2018
Many were quick to question the move by police – including former health minister Terry Lake who held his position during the worst year of overdose deaths in B.C.’s history.
“What possible reason would they have to do this???,” Lake tweeted.
“Sorry did you send this tweet from 1987? This is insane,” Vancouver-based addiction physician Dr. Keith Ahamad said.
In a statement online, the B.C. Centre on Substance Use said the move makes 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,” it said.
“That’s on top of the harms we know that are created by criminalizing drug use. Overdose prevention sites need to be barrier-free and safe spaces for drug users.”
However, Doucette noted that selling cannabis in a street market will continue to be illegal after cannabis is decriminalized in October.
“The cannabis (still an illegal substance) was in plain view at the market and was seized for destruction,” he told Black Press in an email. “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 officers have seen this type of trafficking on cannabis in other parts of Vancouver and have taken enforcement action after informal attempts to resolve the issues were not successful.