British Columbia

Future of Downtown Eastside cannabis kiosk unclear after police raid

Sarah Blyth, president of the High Hopes Foundation, says she remains determined to continue providing cannabis for people trying to get away from using opioids.

Sarah Blyth, High Hopes Foundation president, says she is determined to continue group's efforts

High Hopes Foundation president and Vancouver city council candidate Sarah Blyth says she is determined to continue distributing cannabis to people trying to quit opioids, despite the police raid. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Organizers of a Vancouver cannabis kiosk that distributed products to opioid users as a treatment option aren't sure where they'll continue to provide their service, following a raid by police on Friday.

But Sarah Blyth, president of the High Hopes Foundation, which ran the kiosk, says she remains determined to continue providing cannabis for people trying to get away from using opioids.

"We just support people not dying, and that's really it — and we're using any tool that we possibly can to make that possible," said Blyth, who is running for Vancouver city council.

"We believe it's the only thing we have right now that's a substitution program."

Officers in the Downtown Eastside street market, where High Hopes had set up shop, noticed cannabis products for sale on Friday, according to Vancouver police.

"Our officers attempted to identify the owner of the products but no one took ownership, including a woman seated near the table," said spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard in a written statement.

"The product, including two plastic bottles of unknown powder, was seized and tagged at the VPD property office for destruction," he said.

Blyth posted video of the seizure on social media.

'I didn't question it too hard'

High Hopes announced it was creating a foundation to run the kiosk and provide affordable or free cannabis for patients at the end of August.

Sarah Blyth (right), says providing better access to cannabis in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside will save lives by getting people off fentanyl-contaminated street drugs. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

At the time, Robillard said the organization would be allowed to operate.

"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," he said in August.

On the weekend, Downtown Eastside street market management told High Hopes it wasn't welcome at the site.

Tracey Axelsson, executive director with Vancouver Community Network, which oversees the market, said that was due to a memorial being held at the market on Sunday — and that another raid in the future would distract from any similar memorials.

Axelsson said she had wondered about the kiosk before the raid, saying any other drug dealers would have been immediately shut down.

"But I believed at the time it was a medically necessary medical substitute for opioids, so I didn't question it too hard," she said.

'We believe that it works'

Axelsson said High Hopes appeared to be operating beyond a verbal agreement between the VPD, the City of Vancouver and Blyth about the kiosk. But if High Hopes followed the rules as they were outlined, they'd be welcome to continue at the market, she said.

"No sales — I mean, that's trafficking. No edibles, because you can't control the quantity of anything in an edible ... and no substances that would be not identifiable," Axelsson explained.

According to Blyth, the money charged for the cannabis goes toward paying volunteer honorariums and the powder that VPD didn't identify was kratom, a plant used by some for opioid addiction treatment.

She said if the kiosk is no longer allowed to set up at the street market, she'll be looking for other places to operate — but exactly where is unclear.

"We believe that it works," Blyth said of treatment with cannabis. "We believe that there's some folks that just can't get off drugs completely because of long-term terminal illness, pain, PTSD, and we've seen this as a really effective method of helping people."

A sample of product seized by police from the High Hopes kiosk on Friday. Police described 'two plastic bottles of unknown powder.' Blyth said the product was kratom, a plant sometimes used for opioid addiction treatment. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Since Friday, Blyth has enjoyed lots of support from people defending High Hopes.

Cannabis activist Dana Larsen tweeted that he was delivering replacement cannabis products for Blyth, and encouraged his followers to get in tough with city officials.

The executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Dr. Mark Tyndall, chimed in about the seizure.

B.C.'s former health minister, Terry Lake, who now works for a cannabis company also tweeted a reaction.

"I was quite shocked that they would take this action, and it seemed out of character for the Vancouver Police Department as I've known them to operate on the Downtown Eastside for a number of years," said Lake on Monday.

"At the same time, you've got literally hundreds of illegal cannabis stores in the City of Vancouver that are tolerated by police."

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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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