A motion coming to a Victoria, British Columbia committee meeting Thursday asks the city to consider allowing free or at-cost cannabis to be distributed as a harm reduction service for people with substance use disorders.
SOLID Outreach, an organization of people with lived experience of substance use, is seeking a three-year temporary use permit that would allow them to distribute cannabis, in addition to the other harm reduction services offered, for a pilot overdose prevention project, in consultation with the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
The formal request comes after SOLID has been operating a cannabis substitution program since December 2017. Back then, the organization approached cannabis suppliers, requesting free cannabis to supply to its members, whose majority live in poverty, are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless.
At first, only joints and edibles were offered on weekends, but by mid-2018 the program had expanded to five days a week.
In 2019, a study published by UVic researchers looked at the effect CSP had during the first year. Of the 71 people who answered questions about their substance use following the program, 58 noted a decrease in drug use, with some people reporting their drug use had been eliminated entirely.
”Reductions in drug use may be attributable to participants’ having fewer cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with their drug of choice, and experiencing alleviation of other health conditions that have been linked to drug use (such as chronic pain and poor sleep),” reads the study. Another effect of CSP that was noted by the study is the impact it had on “lowering the high levels of social exclusion and dislocation that is experienced by people who use drug,” which can turn into tangible health benefits.
Island Health’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Richard Stanwick has also voiced support for the program, asking Victoria council to give “serious consideration” to the temporary use application. Stanwick notes there is promising evidence emerging from studies on the CSP, which suggests “that cannabis has a potential role as part of a broader strategy to support people who use other substances.”
The North Park Neighborhood Association (NPNA) held a public meeting in January, where residents voiced concerns about a “dramatic increase in crime” and drug use in the area, along with an increase in discarded syringes in the area. NPNA described SOLID as a “magnet” that draws in drug users from the 900-block of Pandora Avenue.
“It appears to us that the opposition of some neighbors to our rezoning application is based on an opposition to the very presence of a service for people who are street-involved in the neighborhood – an issue that is not addressed by this rezoning application,” wrote Mark Wilson, director of programs for SOLID, in a letter to council.
SOLID has proposed a street ambassador, who would be on site and complete regular walks around the block to ensure people are using appropriately and to discourage congregation.
In July, B.C. recorded 175 fatal overdoses which has pushed the number of total deaths from illicit drugs in the province above 900 this year.