British Columbia

Addiction experts decry restrictions on cannabis sales on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

The City of Vancouver has created an exclusion zone in the Downtown Eastside, where cannabis vendors will not be granted licences. But addiction experts say this area is where cannabis could benefit drug users.

City created 'exclusion zone' to protect vulnerable, but experts say it’s hurting them

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has a high rate of homelessness and drug abuse. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Cannabis was legalized in Canada last year, but that hasn't made it easier for people who want to buy weed on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Health workers and addiction experts say new municipal rules and licensing regimes are leaving people at the epicentre of the country's opioid crisis with no legal options if they want to use cannabis, which can help them kick more dangerous drugs.

However, the city has created an exclusion zone on the Downtown Eastside where cannabis vendors will not be granted licences — except for four approved locations on or near Hastings Street, the main artery, which are eligible for a provincial licence.

Addiction experts say this area — which extends from Richards Street to Clark Drive — is where cannabis could benefit drug users.

After cannabis was legalized in October 2018, the City of Vancouver moved to license vendors. It says 70 stores will be approved but those that are not licensed must close. As a result, the dispensaries and compassion clubs that have long operated near Main and Hastings expect to be shut down any day.

As it stands now, if a pot store is not on the Vancouver city map drawn up by municipal officials, it's not legal.

The exclusion zone was drawn up in 2015 alongside licensing rules for medical-cannabis dispensaries.

The idea was to keep vulnerable drug users safer.

Restricting the number of dispensaries was designed to "[limit] proximity to youth and vulnerable populations," said chief licence inspector Kathryn Holm in a statement.

A map of the exclusion zone. (City of Vancouver)

Pot can help drug users: researcher

New local research has shown that cannabis use can help drug users sleep, detox and even transition to less deadly addictions.

Front-line workers say that since legalization, access to pot has become more difficult for Vancouver's least privileged drug users. It often requires a credit card or address to buy cannabis in a licensed dispensary and people in the city's poorest neighbourhood often don't have either.

Cannabis researchers have found that pot can help people struggling to kick other drugs by making detox bearable and helping them sleep. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Dr. Michael John Milloy, a research scientist with the B.C. Centres on Substance Use, said pot can help drug users stay healthier because it can help them sleep.

Data also show it can help them detox and transition to less harmful drugs. His research shows daily pot users are less likely to inject, overdose or quit methadone treatment

But Milloy said that many users in the Downtown Eastside can't benefit from legal cannabis because the dispensaries aren't located near them. Legal boutiques sell cannabis at $12 a gram, while street users can find low-grade illicit pot for $6 a gram, he said.

There is a similar exclusion zone for cannabis vendors in the Granville Entertainment District between Robson Street and Pacific Boulevard.

Cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018, but only a few legal stores have opened in Vancouver. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

Corrections

  • This story has been updated to remove quotes attributed to Dr. Keith Ahamad that were taken out of context.
    May 31, 2019 1:00 PM PT
  • An earlier version of this story suggested that no cannabis stores could be licensed in the exclusion zone. In fact, there are four locations within the exclusion zone that are eligible to apply for a licence.
    Apr 25, 2019 1:43 PM PT

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

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