British Columbia

It's time to install vending machines to provide addicts with clean drugs, UBC prof says

Dr. Mark Tyndall is pushing for vending machines that dispense clean drugs to be installed in British Columbia so users can have access to a regulated safe supply.

Dispensing clean drugs will prevent more deaths, says Dr. Mark Tyndall

A harm reduction vending machine outside a health centre in Ottawa that provides clean needles and crack pipes. UBC public policy professor Dr. Mark Tyndall wants to install machines in B.C. that would also dispense drugs. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Worse than ever.

That's how Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart describes the city's Downtown Eastside right now. 

The notorious neighbourhood has been hit hard by the opioid crisis and as people continue to drop dead from tainted drugs, advocates are calling for a safe drug supply to help mitigate the damage. 

Dr. Mark Tyndall, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia, says installing a vending machine that dispenses clean drugs could help.

Tyndall, who is also lead of research and evaluation for the Provincial Health Services Authority's Opioid Overdose Response Team and has spent 20 years working in the Downtown Eastside, said he will have a prototype that could be ready to roll out in as little as two months.

"The focus should be on treating this like a public health emergency, like it was declared. This is a poisoning epidemic, and like any other thing that people are being exposed to, we try to change that exposure," Tyndall told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

A woman prepares to inject herself as a man sits in a wheelchair outside Insite, a supervised consumption site on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Tyndall said supervised consumption sites are one way to make sure users have a safe drug supply, but they are not enough.

"It excludes a lot of people who are just never going to go in three times a day and be observed using drugs," he said.

He told Quinn a vending machine would be a "giant, locked box" where people could purchase without feeling scrutinized but he has heard concerns from critics that people will resell what they buy from the machine.

Tyndall believes those concerns are "way overblown" and if users sell or give their vending machine drugs to other users it is "exactly what we'd want to happen in a poisoning epidemic."

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and drug user advocate, spent time walking around the neighbourhood with Quinn. She said the area resembles a "walled-off'" spot for people society does not want to acknowledge.

Karen Ward describes Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as becoming a 'walled-off' spot and says people don't want to acknowledge what is happening there. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"People don't want to look at this because acknowledging that is really painful, because it shows how everybody is complicit in this situation which just keeps getting worse," said Ward.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s top health officer, has recommended the province move urgently to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use.

The federal government reported 11,577 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada between January 2016 and December 2018. Tyndall said if users have to continue purchasing drugs from unregulated sources, they will continue to die.

In December 2017, Tyndall told CBC the public might not be ready for drug vending machines and said distribution of clean drugs could start on a smaller scale. Now, less than two years later, he says it is time to scale up safe supply in a hurry to save lives. 

A man stops to read a mural by street artist Smokey D. about the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Early Edition


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