It works like an ATM but for medical-grade opioids and the creators behind a new machine in the Downtown Eastside say it will help combat the overdose crisis that’s killed thousands across B.C.
A biometric dispensing machine has been installed at the Overdose Prevention Site on East Hastings Street and was unveiled to the public this week. The heavy machine, bolted to the floor, contains tablets of hydromorphone – an opioid medication that can work as an alternative to heroin.
It’s part of a groundbreaking initiative called the MySafe Project led by safe drug advocate Dr. Mark Tyndall, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.
Tyndall introduced the idea, which was received by some as a controversial concept, publicly in 2018.
“So basically, it’s an 800-pound, secure dispensing machine – much like an ATM – where people can get a safe supply of drugs,” Tyndall explained.
The machine uses biometric scans that reads the vein patters on the palm of a person’s hand to verify their identity, and then dispenses a drug in a little box in the bottom. Participants can use the machine up to four times per day.
Currently, the machine is being used by five registered opioid users, who were each evaluated on their drug use, as well as health and social status, by a physician. However, the dispensing machine can hold enough supply for up to 48 prescriptions.
Roughly 4,500 people have died from an illicit drug overdose in B.C. since the government declared the crisis a provincial health emergency in 2016, with Vancouver seeing the lions share of the fatalities.
While the province has worked to try to curb the staggering number of deaths, including by making the opioid-reversing antidote naloxone freely available and by introducing fentanyl testing strips, a growing number of health advocates have been calling for the federal government to decriminalize hard drugs and offer a safe supply.
“Back in 2016 the game changed, a supply of heroin which had been pretty steady for the past few decades was being replaced with fentanyl and people were dying – voices in the community and my friends and people I had treated and seen over the years,” Tyndall said.
“At the end of the day we had to do something about the situation where people were buying mystery drugs from criminal gangs to offering them an alternative through a safer, pharmaceutical supply of opioids.”
Tyndall said the hope is that the project helps “break the cycle and the hustle” users go through to access their drugs.