Long lines form down the block outside of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) premises on East Hastings Street. Many wait patiently for the organization to open its doors and start doling out free cannabis edibles, topicals, and joints. Neil Magnuson says his harm-reduction program, located in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, sees between 160 and 180 of the city’s dejected at each event—all desperate for relief from various medical conditions and drug addiction.
As Vancouver continues to grapple with an overdose crisis, antiprohibitionists like Magnuson aren’t waiting for the City of Vancouver to take action. He’s taking matters into his own hands.
“Most people aren’t trying to harm themselves with drugs; they don’t want to be living behind a Dumpster, putting a needle in their arm. They have a lot of pain in their life, a lot of disassociation and disconnection from community,” he tells the Straight. “They’re using drugs because they’re just trying to get through another night. And prohibitive drug laws are keeping them there.”
A carpenter by trade, Magnuson spent years repairing stairs, doors, and structural damage in homes for insurance companies, which brought him to doing work for the Herb School in 2004. While helping build the grassroots collective—a since-closed activist-run hub for cannabis education—he began perusing some of its educational material.
He says it was the combined knowledge gleaned from reading Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes and conversations with fellow cannabis activist David Malmo-Levine that led him to start championing the global legalization movement.
Hoping to spread knowledge of drug-war harms, he launched the Freedom Tour in 2006. For three years, Magnuson traversed some 5,000 kilometres across Canada on in-line skates, armed with a 12-page document outlining the inherent flaws of cannabis prohibition. Along the way, he visited as many communities as possible, liaising with locals, police officers, mayors, and city councillors to dispel myths and disseminate information calling for fair medical access to cannabis—once even placing his material directly in the hands of then prime minister Stephen Harper.
When he saw the overdose epidemic rear its head in his back yard, however, he realized information alone was not enough.
“Because of my experience with the Herb School, I knew cannabis edibles help people get off of hard drugs. When this crisis hit, and I was getting no response to my calls for action from city hall, I came here [VANDU],” he says.
“I started finding any way to get these people edibles and give them as much as they needed to get them clean.”
He now runs a weekly cannabis substitution program, heading a team of volunteers in handing out donation-based care packages to Vancouver’s homeless and drug-addicted population.