4/20: Cannabis could be a safe alternative to the delivery of toxic drugs, so why is access being cut off?

By MJ Milloy and Marilou Gagnon

As British Columbia struggles to implement and scale safer delivery programs to mitigate its unprecedented overdose crisis, why is provincial law enforcement closing community-level groups that provide safer supplies of cannabis to those most at risk of overdose?

In early March, officials from the Community Safety Unit (CSU), led by Secretary of Public Safety Mike Farnworth, raided the Blue Door, a pharmacy that sells unregulated cannabis to people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood, the epicenter of the drug overdose crisis in Vancouver. Canada.

This followed several raids on the Cannabis Substitution Project, which hands out free cannabis weekly from a camper near Hastings and Main, and two raids on the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club, one of the oldest sources of cheap medical cannabis in the province for more than 8,000 members with chronic health conditions, including chronic pain. The club now faces more than $6.5 million in fines.

Although they differ in location, ownership and operations, these three groups — and others across the country — are at legal risk from the alleged distribution of cannabis from producers not licensed under Canada’s official legal cannabis framework. They have been drawn into Canadian governments’ efforts to eliminate the profits from cannabis for organized crime groups, one of the main goals of cannabis legalization.

“We have been very clear that once legal cannabis stores in a community became operational, the illegal retailers would have to deal with increasing enforcement activity from the CSU,” Farnworth said in a press release following the raid on the Blue Door.

Farnworth’s statement reflects a narrow interpretation of the public safety purpose of the Cannabis Act and blatantly ignores public health purposes. Eliminating key sources of cheap cannabis for those most at risk of overdose does not increase public safety or meet public health benchmarks set by law.

It also fails to take into account the public interest and the downsides of eliminating these sources of cannabis in the midst of the overdose crisis.

Promising but preliminary research from our research groups at UVic and UBC has raised the possibility that cannabis may play a beneficial role in the overdose crisis by providing a lower-risk alternative to the toxic delivery of opioids, stimulants and other drugs, especially for people taking medicines for pain relief.

For example, of the nearly 1,500 drug-using people in the DTES interviewed at the start of the overdose crisis, nearly two-thirds reported recent cannabis use — and of those, more than 75 percent reported at least one medical reason for using cannabis, including treating chronic pain and replacing other medications.

In a dozen studies in peer-reviewed journals, we documented how cannabis use was associated with lower rates of starting to inject drugs, a major risk factor for overdose, and higher rates of stopping injecting opioids. Daily cannabis use was also strongly associated with better engagement with medication for opioid dependence.

In another study, we found that people who took drugs with chronic pain—an experience that underpins opioid use for many who die of overdose—were less likely to use opioids when they used cannabis.

While there’s no shortage of cannabis in the DTES and other communities decimated by the overdose crisis, it’s not hard to see why hardly anyone — less than one percent, according to our research — comes from the legal system. The main reason is cost. While legal cannabis is getting cheaper, it’s still more expensive than unregulated cannabis, especially in the lowest quantities, thanks in part to the federal government’s $3 tax on each product. And due to federal regulations, some products are not available on the legal market, such as high-dose edibles.

Thus, our research suggests that by providing a reliable and consistent supply of low-cost cannabis and products not currently available through government-sanctioned retail outlets, these unregulated outlets are filling a gap in the legal cannabis market.

In fact, in one study, we found that people who used cannabis primarily to treat pain were about 30 percent less likely to overdose — and they were twice as likely to report that their main source of cannabis was an unregulated drug. point of sale, such as the Blue Door .

The number of deaths from the supply of toxic drugs in this province has been unprecedented and the province has stated that it is expanding access to safe supplies. But the ongoing police raids and closures of low-threshold cannabis suppliers say otherwise.

Who is protected by these raids is not clear; they are certainly not people who are at risk of death.


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