After a weekend of digital backlash, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has issued a formal statement regarding the seizure of cannabis earmarked for a local drug substitution program. The one major takeaway: It wasn’t a ‘raid’.
In a press conference today (September 19), VPD spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard responded to a viral video of officers taking cannabis from a booth at a market in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) last Friday (September 14).
The video shows several officers confiscating a display case of pre-rolled joints and capsules containing cannabis from a kiosk located at 62 East Hastings. The booth was run by the High Hopes Foundation—an organization that provides locals with affordable (and often free) cannabis to aid in drug addiction, recovery, and other medical conditions.
The footage, which was recorded and shared on social media by the foundation’s president Sarah Blyth, quickly garnered a heated response from community members and advocates, including a Tweet from former B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake.
What possible reason would they have to do this??? https://t.co/Ac9WwtD3x8
— Terry Lake (@TerryLake16) September 14, 2018
Despite the seizure, Blyth and the foundation returned to the market on Saturday (September 15) to continue their efforts, only to be met again by officers who threatened arrests if the group persisted.
In this video the @VancouverPD threatened to arrest me today for givingfolks safe access to cannabis what a waste of police resources @ctv_jon @ZoeDodd @DrMtyndall @pivotlegal @donaldmacmac @donnadmay @CooperAnna pic.twitter.com/VfHz2uN4e1
— Sarah Blyth (@sarahblyth) September 16, 2018
Today, Sgt. Robillard delivered the sanitized rundown of the incident, saying the “routine walkthrough” was ‘mischaracterized’ as a raid and the officers were merely using their discretion to intervene with the “trafficking of illicit substances”.
Later in the press conference, a reporter reads the definition of a raid to Sgt. Robillard, saying: ‘A raid is a suprise visit by police to arrest suspected people or seize illicit goods. What part of this was not a raid?’
Sgt. Robillard responds: ‘What this was, was a routine walkthrough of the market that the officers that patrol in that area commonly do throughout their shift,’ and that all vendors of the market do want a police presence. ‘It was not a raid.’
He goes on to say that the cannabis was being sold for profit and that there are more legitimate ways for patients to access their medicine—blatantly glazing over the barriers to access for many of the locals residing in the systemically impoverished neighbourhood.
On Monday (September 17), cannabis activist Dana Larsen clarified on Twitter that the any profits from the sale of the organization’s cannabis goes to compensating the individuals working at the booth.
We donate it for free. High Hopes Foundation sells it for cheap or gives it away to those who can’t pay. The money they make goes to pay an honorarium to the person who works the booth.
— Dana Larsen (@DanaLarsen) September 18, 2018
In the statement, Sgt. Robillard also affirms that the VPD does support harm reduction programs, but the officers in the video, again ‘using their discretion’, decided that this was not considered to be supportive of said efforts.
The High Hopes Foundation is one of many organizations providing a healthier alternative to harder drugs for Vancouver’s homeless population. Cannabis, which has been proven a highly effective alternative to reducing and aiding in addiction, is routinely distributed by several substitution programs operating out of the DTES. These programs offer both free and reduced-cost cannabis as an alternative to substances like heroin and opioids.
Considering the country is just one month shy of legalizing adult-use cannabis and this incident, according to the VPD’s statement, wasn’t a large-scale drug bust of a nefarious criminal organization, much of the public denunciation didn’t centre around the officer’s rights or whether the incident could be defined as a raid. What the community was calling for, however, was a justification behind confiscating weed meant for those who can’t afford medicine.
After the statement, a reporter asks: “Do you think at the end of the day, having had some perspective, was this a wise move?”
Sgt. Robillard responds: “Well, this wasn’t drugs being given away. This was drugs being sold for personal profit. At the end of the day, that’s what this was. There are other avenues that will support harm reduction and we support those through our partners in the community and other health professionals. If you need medicinal marijuana, there are legitimate ways to obtain that and this wasn’t one of them.”
The statement doesn’t highlight the fact that the High Hopes Foundation is one of the leading organizations tackling Vancouver’s opioid addiction and overdose crisis by way of cannabis substitution and its president—Blyth, who is a very recognizable member of the community—was merely a few feet away from the officers at the time of the seizure.
It also doesn’t touch on several subsequent videos showing the officers returning to the market, including one that shows an officer asking Blyth to point out the neighborhood’s fentanyl dealers. Spoiler alert: She doesn’t oblige.
9/14/18, 58E Hastings, Everyone who has been street-involved in this neighbourhood knows immediately what this cop’s intent is – to those outside, the idea that a police officer would do such a thing is absurd, unthinkable… #vanpoli @sarahblyth @mayorgregor @kennedystewart pic.twitter.com/6AAKqODGVc
— Karen Ward (@kwardvancouver) September 18, 2018
The full statement can be seen in the video below: