Opioid Vending Machines Proposed By Health Expert

By Victoria Kim 04/19/19

The safe supply program has already secured a $1.4 million federal grant. 

man making a selection at a vending machine

Can a free supply of “safer drugs” help push back rising rates of drug overdose and death? What if they were dispensed by high-tech vending machines?

A leading Vancouver-based public health expert is pushing this proposal, faced with the challenge of reducing drug-related harms among the drug-using population in Vancouver, Canada’s Downtown Eastside—described as “one of North America’s densest populations of injection drug users”—and beyond.

Today’s illicit drugs pose a new challenge for public health officials like Dr. Mark Tyndall. According to the BC coroner, in 2018 fentanyl was detected in 4 out of 5 illicit drug deaths in British Columbia. “The plight of people using drugs didn’t change four years ago. The drugs they’re using changed,” Tyndall said in a new interview with Wired.

Pre-approved participants who have proven that they are chronic drug users and have obtained a doctor’s prescription can access the opioid vending machines with a biometric scan of the veins in their hands to confirm their identity. They must undergo regular urine tests to prove that they are taking the drugs.

While Tyndall, a long-time public health advocate and former executive medical director of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), has already secured a $1.4 million federal grant for the BCCDC from Health Canada to test his safe supply program—giving a regular supply of hydromorphone pills—the national health agency is still reviewing his vending machine proposal.

Safe supply programs already exist throughout Europe, and some Vancouver clinics are testing this idea as well. Some require daily visits to the clinic to get the daily dose. But under Tyndall’s proposal, participation in the free-opioid program would not need to happen under medical supervision. The key to Tyndall’s plan is that participants may access the drugs and use them without going to a designated clinic.

While creating designated spaces for supervised drug consumption (also known as supervised injection facilities) have helped prevent drug overdose deaths and given people easy access to treatment options, Tyndall says there is still a segment of the drug-using population that will not step foot in such a place. 

“We’re acknowledging people will go to any extreme to use this drug. To tell them not to use because it’s unsafe is ridiculous,” said Tyndall.

Insite, North America’s first official supervised injection facility, is just one of several such sites throughout Canada.

Tyndall says no matter what his detractors say, it’s all about keeping people alive. “To me, its only ethical,” he said.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr