Now is the time for drug vending machines, UBC professor says

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 executive medical director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and has spent 20 years working in the Downtown Eastside, told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition, 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," said Tyndall.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

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.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

"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.

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC