British Columbia

Vancouver foundation's cannabis distribution program gets Health Canada approval

High Hopes, which started as a harm-reduction program distributing medical marijuana in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as an alternative to street drugs, is back after Health Canada granted it a licence to distribute medical marijuana prescribed by doctors.

Goal is to develop distribution framework that can legally offer other illicit drugs, says High Hopes founder

Sarah Blyth says she has 'high hopes' after High Hopes Foundation secured a licence from Health Canada to distribute medical marijuana prescribed by doctors. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada)

Longtime overdose prevention advocate Sarah Blyth knows marijuana isn't a cure-all for issues of addiction and overdose, but she says it can help some people.

"People use it for sleeping, they use it for pain, they use it for trauma ... sometimes using it instead of opiates," said Blyth, founder of the High Hopes Foundation and the Overdose Prevention Society safe injection site on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. 

High Hopes started in 2017 as a harm-reduction program that distributed medical marijuana on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as an alternative to street drugs. The program ended when marijuana was legalized in October 2018.

Now, the initiative is back up and running after Health Canada granted it a licence on Tuesday to distribute medical marijuana prescribed by doctors or other medical practitioners.

"It's a long time coming and we're really excited to offer a unique program to people," Blyth said.

"The idea is just to give people a safe supply of everything — including cannabis."

Blyth says the non-profit's medical licence is not to be mistaken with retail licences issued by the province. High Hopes fills out prescriptions issued by a doctor or other authorized medical practitioner, she says. 

It does not have a storefront, but rather locations in the Downtown Eastside for people to pick up prescriptions. There is also an option for delivery. 

"A doctor will prescribe them and then instead of them having to get it from online and things like that, which is difficult because they don't have credit cards or a computer, we're able to get it to them," Blyth said.

The licence allows them to work directly with producers, she says, adding that the organization will also advocate for people.

"Sometimes doctors aren't used to prescribing it," she said. "So I would be willing to advocate for them just to help ... bring the research that's needed."

'It works for people' 

Blyth says High Hopes' approach is based on peer-reviewed, published research out of the University of British Columbia (UBC), the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and the Yale School of medicine, among others.

"It's been shown through studies that it works for people," she said, adding that she's seen cannabis help people looking to quit harder drugs. "It reduces pain, stress, trauma."

Dr. M-J Milloy (left) and Sarah Blyth pictured in conversation in Vancouver after a march marking International Overdose Awareness Day. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada)

Dr. M-J Milloy, an assistant professor of medicine at UBC and a BCCSU research scientist says over 75 per cent of people who use cannabis in the Downtown Eastside say they have a medical reason for doing so.

On top of its physical benefits, there are practical ones as well, he says. 

"People who are using cannabis are much less likely to use drugs from the unregulated supply," Milloy told Radio-Canada.

"We are hopeful that if we expand access to cannabis — through programs like Sarah's — then that might mean ... less use of drugs like opioids or fentanyl or heroin."

'A safe supply of everything'

Blyth says they're working out the logistics, including plans to have the High Hopes program subsidized.

She says she also wants to get the local community involved and create job opportunities — including staff for the foundation, who can offer advice and connect people with social workers, treatment centres and outreach programs.

The goal is to develop a subsidized distribution framework within High Hopes that can be expanded to legally offer other illicit drugs, she says.

"What we need is a safe supply of everything."

With files from Josh Grant, Liam Britten and Jon Azpiri