Eden & The Opiate Crisis
This may be my most lengthy post ever. But a lot has happened since I had something to really talk about. And this is it.
Sometime in early fall, a combination of living and working in the DTES, participating in Sleep Out, the privilege of attending SVI Hollyhock and I’m not sure what other factors brought me to a moment of asking myself “what can I do?”
What can I do about the socio-geographical place in which I find myself? In which I have chosen to be?
My fourth call to 911 last year was because of an extremely vulnerable human being in distress. A transgender person of colour, not overdosing – just rolling around in a gutter, needing some help, some humanity – half clothed and not in a sober state. But in no danger of imminent death.
I waited on the sidewalk for a very long time for first responders. When they came, they were not nice to me. More importantly, they were not nice to her. This was ultimately not an emergency. I came home shaken, to my warm house and my caring and considerate roommate.
In the following days, I was more aware as I walked to work, up Heatley, across Cordova, North on Princess, to my studio in Railtown, the quaint anomaly of the DTES – “Strathcona North”. I noticed that there was at least one person, every day, that I saw in a state of semi-consciousness, slumped over in a way that would be alarming anywhere else.
I’m sure there isn’t a person in Vancouver who doesn’t have an opinion on the current state of the DTES. Maybe not in Canada. But living it every day is a completely different thing. And living it every day while being able to go home is different again.
I thought about how first responders must feel after months and months of triage. Of imminent death. Of the frustration of frequent flyers. How much their relationship with humanity must change.
I’d been doing a ton of thinking about what responsibility a city has to small businesses, since I’ve owned one. This traumatic experience made me start thinking about what responsibilities small businesses should have to the city.
I thought maybe it was time for small business owners here, in the DTES, to start talking about what we can do to help. What we should do to help.
I started reading everything I could about the history (and the present) of the DTES. I really resonated with Gabor Mate’s concept that everyone is medicating for pain. I read Travis Lupick’s book and really dug in to the idea of fighting for space. I started thinking about the classism inherent to our stigmas surrounding how, and with what, we medicate for our pain.
This searching led me to Sarah Blyth, an incredibly strong, brave and I’ve discovered, fundamentally practical human, who decided to stop talking and start doing. I called her to suggest that I could organize a sort of town hall meeting for local business owners, to talk about what we could do to make our neighbourhood healthier. To stop the dying, but to also make the living better. To decrease the pain.
She was so gracious to me with her time, while letting me know that a whole bunch of people want to talk about it. Significantly fewer people want to do about it. And here I was, wanting to talk about it.
So I started looking around for something to do about it instead. I started looking for a model of how small business can really take responsibility for the place they choose to be in.
I’ve been an ally for legalization of cannabis for a significant chunk of my life, but it was truly a surprise to encounter it as a potential answer to my questions.
I discovered a cannabis-based opiate replacement program, run by a local dispensary chain, in partnership with a researcher at UBC.
Cannabis for pain reduction made a whole lot of sense to me. And pain reduction equalling pain medication reduction made a whole lot more.
I learned that the dispensary, Eden Medicinals, had been operating in the DTES for a couple of years when their clients started to tell them about the impact of cannabis on other substance use in their lives. They began collecting basic data on the impact of cannabis on methadone reduction. They began administering, free of charge, high quality 25mg THC capsules to anyone expressing a desire to reduce opiate dependency.
And although their sample size was reasonably small, everyone who completed the program reported a decline in usage – of not only methadone, but other opiates as well.
This data collection attracted international attention, as well as the attention of local UBC researcher Zach Walsh. Dr. Walsh and his team created a study intended to more formally collect data on the effect of cannabis on opiate usage.
The city-mandated closure of Eden’s DTES location shortly after this connection left the future of the program uncertain. Although Eden obtained licensing at other locations outside of the DTES, the patients who had been accessing the program were not, for understandable reasons, able to travel as far as Point Grey or the edge of Burnaby to access the program.
I learned that Eden had leased a storefront at Main and Hastings, right across the street from The Balmoral, that they had been renting for almost two years, waiting for city approval to open.
I went to a general meeting of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an extraordinary organization of community activists who do, way more than talk. I asked them what they thought about cannabis as a possible solution. They said “bring it on”. They said “anything that could help, we’re open to”.
I hung out with them for Christmas. That was a really interesting experience. Open drug use. No stigma. Social conventions significantly different than standard Christmas dinner, but so, actually real.
I really, fundamentally, began to understand the value and power of social interaction. Even though that’s what I studied in school. Even though that’s what my business is all about.
And on December 26th, I decided that the Eden location at Main and Hastings should open to dispense their opiate replacement program, and I’d do everything I could to make that happen. Because apart from the medication, this was an opportunity to provide a daily point of social contact, for a bunch of people who needed just that.
We opened on January 1st.
I knew it would be a challenge, but the first few weeks were a learning curve that I truthfully didn’t anticipate. Even after visiting Sarah’s OPS location just down the street, where they experience sometimes dozens of non fatal ODs in a day. Even after almost ten years experience traversing these ten blocks or so. Ten days or so into our opening, I wrote the word “Naive” in my notebook. I doubted the long term viability of Eden managing this program, in this place.
Which is maybe why I’ve waited this long to share this project story. I didn’t really know if this was the right way to help, or if it was just an ego project – a way to feel like I was contributing.
And then an amazing thing happened. The staff at Main and Hastings started to really bond with their patients. The problems we experienced in the first couple of weeks started to work themselves out.
I started to believe the things I was working to get other people to believe – that a daily point of contact is part of the medicinal value. That something we can grow in our own back yards could really make a difference. That people who care don’t need to have certifications to help.
We’re only a few weeks in to collecting the data again. I truly believe it is integral to an understanding of the potential of cannabis to combat a number of other, more damaging dependencies.
Dispensaries are businesses. As small business owners, the ability to give back is dependent on the ability to operate while generating revenue.
The city wants a demonstration of community support for all dispensaries – and I completely understand that. But not being able to operate makes it really hard to generate support. And even more difficult to continue to offer benevolent programming.
Please note that the closer you live to the neighbourhood, the more important your support – please feel free to share with anyone you know who lives in the DTES or surrounding neighbourhoods.
I really want this program to continue. I don’t know what the results will be. But I’m so hopeful. And at the end of it, I think we’ll know if this can help.
If it’s successful, I’d like to make this program available to every dispensary in Canada. We’re uncommonly prepared in the DTES, to meet this challenge, because of our transparent need. I hope we can offer it to people in communities less prepared, who may be even more devastated.
This is my favourite thing to talk about right now, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions – I’m not asking for your unqualified support. I’m asking to start a conversation, that leads to action.
Next week, the city of Vancouver makes an important decision about whether or not to allow Eden to operate at their Main and Hastings location. I would be so grateful for your support for this.
Also next week, on Thursday night, Subculture at Creative Coworkers is hosting a discussion forum about opiate dependency and how we can help.
If you made it this far in this crazy long post, I thank you. If you have other suggestions on how small business in the DTES can help, I welcome them. We’re better together, I so sincerely believe.