An advocacy group on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is trying a new approach to fighting the ongoing overdose crisis: provide people with access to marijuana instead.

The High Hopes Foundation says it's offering affordable and, sometimes, even free access to cannabis products for area residents as an alternative to opiates that are so often laced with deadly fentanyl.

President Sarah Blyth, who is also the founder of the Vancouver Overdose Prevention Society, says the foundation's goal is to make drug users aware of and provide access to other options for pain management besides street drugs.

"It's very difficult sitting around watching people overdose and not having options for them," Blyth said.

"It's not always possible for people to just completely come off all drugs, because they've got trauma. They have pain. They need something. Opiates may not be the best option for everyone so we're trying to give them the options we have available."

Fentanyl testing

In addition to cannabis products, the foundation also offers free testing strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in a drug sample. Blyth said the strips only require a grain or two of the drugs being tested to be effective.

The foundation also offers naloxone training and is affiliated with the Overdose Prevention Society, a supervised injection site.

fentanyl testing strip

A single horizontal line on this testing strip indicates the presence of fentanyl in the sample. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

Ryan Stefani, a paramedic specialist with the B.C. Ambulance Service, said paramedics are being run ragged dealing with the ongoing crisis and every extra bit helps.

"It's not only the alternatives [to opiates] that they're offering, but ... the resources that they have access to that they're able to pass on to the population," Stefani said.

Lesley Pritchard, a spokesperson for B.C. Emergency Health Services, which oversees the B.C. Ambulance Service, clarified the organization doesn't have a position on specific harm reduction solutions but  says it generally supports the efforts made by this group and others to ease suffering and save lives.

VPD: we're not shutting down site

Distributing cannabis is illegal in Canada, and Blyth said an encounter with police on the weekend nearly shut the foundation down.

"We were set up yesterday, and I think the police we interacted with didn't understand what we're doing," she said.

But Sgt. Jason Robillard, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said he was unaware of any major incident, and it was likely just a miscommunication.

 "I don't know if there was a misinterpretation of beat officers simply walking by and having a conversation with somebody that got misconstrued," he said.

"We certainly didn't shut it down and we didn't do a raid."

In fact, Robillard said the police force is very supportive of Blyth's work.

"Our position is that drug addiction is a health problem. Our main priority [is] reducing overdoses — not shutting down programs that seem to be working." 

Opiate replacement needed, Blyth says

In routine testing of drugs from the Overdose Prevention Society, Blyth says the majority of samples test positive for fentanyl.

Blyth says, ideally, the foundation would be able to offer other opiates such as legal heroin as an alternative. But until that becomes available, Blyth says anything is better than contaminated street drugs for people who have few other options.

"[The Downtown Eastside] is like a war zone," she said. "You can't judge people for wanting to get rid of pain."

The City of Vancouver says more people — at least 232 — have died of a drug overdose so far in 2017, surpassing the number who died in all of 2016.