This is the final part of our series with Dana Larsen. In this interview, Dana tells CLN about the amazing pain-killing effects of a plant known as kratom and how it could help turn the tide against the opioid crisis, his ongoing fight to end the War on Drugs, why he wants to expand the dispensary model to other illegal drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, his new book, and so much more.
He also tells us why he thinks Vancouver‘s dispensaries should stay open and how the ones that are voluntarily closing are surrendering when they are on the verge of victory.
Dana Larsen: The Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) is run by Sarah Blyth, and she also runs the DTES street market next door. The city gives her a little bit of funding to help get vending off the street and into a controlled area.
Sarah’s not really into drugs or cannabis herself, but she wants to help people and when she learned about the benefits of cannabis, she started making it available at the market.
My dispensary (The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary) provides the OPS with free edibles, bud, and other products, and the OPS puts it on sale below market price or even gives it away to those who need it, and whatever revenue they get typically goes to the person who runs the booth to give them a little pay and help them cover their costs.
A year ago, there were stories in Vice and other media sites talking about this, and the VPD said at the time:
“The way we look at it is: yes it’s illegal, but drug addiction is a health problem. Our main priority [is] reducing overdoses — not shutting down programs that seem to be working.
What’s more important: saving lives or enforcing the law?”
Which is a wonderful statement from the police– it’s very progressive and it’s remarkable that the police would say that!
So everything’s been fine for about a year, and then a little while ago some cops in the DTES Market saw some cannabis and seized it, and said the OPS couldn’t do that anymore. When the cops saw cannabis was still there the next day, they took it again and told Sarah, “If you do this again, you’re under arrest!”
While it seems it’s just a couple of cops acting under their own volition, the fact is Vancouver allows cannabis to be sold in all kinds of locations- the vast majority of which don’t have permits or licenses- and the first place the cops choose to enforce the cannabis laws is the place that provides cheap, affordable cannabis to opioid addicts in the Downtown Eastside. To me, it’s a shocking set of priorities.
Why is the OPS the only place in the city where the police are enforcing cannabis trafficking laws?
Cannabis is part of the solution, not the problem, and this kind of arbitrary enforcement against one cannabis outlet while every other one is ignored, is just terrible policy from the VPD.
I heard that Pivot actually launched a formal complaint against the two officers you’re talking about.
Dana Larsen: Absolutely. The Pivot Legal Society– a group in the DTES that provides free legal advice to people that need it- has been circulating a photo of the officers involved and I was there the one day and pretty much every person that walked by said, “I know those cops!”, and everybody recognizes them as trouble- they’ve been the focus of complaints ranging from improper enforcement to violence and bullying.
I’m not against police in general but they say a few bad apples spoil the bunch and certainly, there seems to be a few bad apples in the VPD that are causing problems in the community.
With cannabis being legalized in Canada, are you turning your focus and activism towards ending the War on Drugs?
Dana Larsen: We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to cannabis issues but for me, it’s always been about more than just cannabis.
It’s been about ending the whole War on Drugs, which is really just a war on the world’s most useful and medicinal plants!
Certainly cannabis is an incredible plant, but you also have plants like coca leaves, the opium poppy, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote cactus- they can be remarkably beneficial with incredible spiritual and social relevance to the cultures that have used them for millennia and I really want to see an end to all of this Prohibition.
I’m looking into ways of taking the dispensary model we’ve built and expanding that to other substances. It’s still early going but I’d love to see people opening dispensaries for psychedelics and other things.
I would like to see a push to increase the awareness of and access to psilocybin mushrooms, for instance, and if I could get enough opium, I’d love to open an opium lounge or centre where opioid users could drink opium tea or smoke raw opium, which is incredibly safe, instead of injecting heroin, which is really the only other option.
I’m all about making safe, more plant-based versions of these medicines available and I think that’s what’s really part of the human solution that we need to this incredibly damaging and deadly War on Drugs.
So when you’re talking about opening dispensaries for other drugs, did you have something like the Urban Shaman in mind?
Dana Larsen: I love what the Urban Shaman is doing- and I think Chris Bennet is a really amazing guy- but I wouldn’t use that exact model. I think that if we’re going to sell things like psilocybin mushrooms or opium, that having a more strictly medical model, to begin with, is probably a better way to get long-term success.
Psilocybin is great for things like cluster headaches, PTSD, migraines, and depression, and so I would recommend making psilocybin available in safe doses to people that can confirm they have one of those ailments in the same way that we made cannabis available to those who suffered from an identifiable ailment that cannabis could treat.
Hopefully, over time, we can begin to recognize the broader medicinal uses and low risk of psilocybin and it can be made more widely available, but to begin with, success would be contingent on having a medicinal model.
The Urban Shaman, I think, sells mostly legal entheogenic herbs or at least, grey area ones, but I don’t think they’re actually selling anything that’s in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
So things like psilocybin mushrooms aren’t available because that would get you a visit from the VPD, but if you’re making them only available for medicinal purposes, even though they’re still illegal, I think you’d be a lot more likely to be left alone and to have success.
While I’m for legalization for everybody, I really do think that those with medical needs should be at the front of the line.
Yeah, I think the Urban Shaman sells things like salvia and kratom, stuff like that.
Dana Larsen: Kratom is actually not in the CDSA. It’s a controlled substance only in that you can’t sell it for human consumption, so you can sell kratom, you can buy kratom, and you can use kratom, but if I sell it to you I have to say, “Whatever you do, do not put this into a cup of tea and drink it because it might help you feel better”.
But it’s not like the cops will come and bust down your door over kratom. You can get fined for selling it openly, but it’s not the same as a criminal offence.
Kratom is wonderful for people who need pain relief and it helps opioid users and opioid addicts to help them reduce or eliminate their opioid consumption. We should be researching and subsidizing kratom availability instead of harassing the people that make it available to those who need it.
Kratom has shown potential to help opioid users in particular, hasn’t it?
Dana Larsen: Kratom is actually sort of an opioid itself, it’s a leaf from a tree that grows in Southeast Asia, and like cannabis, there’s a few different kinds of varieties of kratom. Some are more stimulating, some are more relaxing- kind of like indicas and sativas.
But what’s incredible about kratom is that while opiates affect two of the metabolic pathways in your body, kratom only affects one of those pathways, and the one it doesn’t affect is the one where if you take too much, it causes respiratory distress and you can overdose and die.
If you take too many opiates, it floods that particular pathway and you can have an overdose death. With kratom, it doesn’t really affect that pathway so to overdose and die on kratom is much harder than it is on opiates.
But because kratom affects the other pathway, it’s able to reduce your cravings and reduce your withdrawal symptoms and make it a lot easier for users to reduce or eliminate opiates while still getting the same kind of pain relief benefits.
Kratom really is an amazing substance, and while there is some risk and concern, when compared to opioids, that risk and concern is miniscule.
Especially considering the health crisis we’re in the middle of, we should be pushing for kratom research and promoting kratom access.
The Urban Shaman does do that and I’m planning on trying to make kratom more available as well in the coming months.
And just raise that public awareness and get the word out that it exists?
Dana Larsen: Kratom is definitely growing in awareness but I’ve still talked to a lot of cannabis activists and drug policy activists that haven’t really heard about it yet, and I think over the next few years we’re going to see it become very popular and also very controversial.
In the USA, the DEA and other groups are pushing to ban kratom and try to fearmonger around it, which is really disgusting, in my opinion, because kratom is so beneficial and useful and if you take a scientific look at it, you’ll recognize that kratom is part of the solution to the opioid overdose crisis.
Do you think we just fear what we don’t know, and some of the stigma comes from there?
Dana Larsen: Most often it’s people with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other promoting abstinence for other people!
I think there’s a belief that “drugs are bad and drug users are bad, and substituting a dangerous drug with a safer drug is still immoral and irresponsible, and the only real solution is abstinence”.
But the fact is that in a regulated and controlled manner, opioids are quite safe, and certainly smoking opium or drinking opium tea is very safe, and even if you become an opioid addict or someone who needs opioids, that’s usually because you’re in pain.
Most people who try opioids aren’t interested, don’t enjoy them and don’t want to do them again.
It’s people who are in pain that find themselves attracted to opioids, and whether that’s physical pain from injuries or being homeless, where you get a lot of pain from sleeping rough, or whether it’s psychic pain from child abuse or trauma or PTSD, opium helps people eliminate that pain.
And when you have people that are in pain and instead of helping them, you punish them and force them to seek their pain relief in a very dangerous fashion that is often a death sentence, that is truly unconscionable and a violation of human rights.
I’m going to switch topics a little bit. I heard you’re working on a new book, can you tell me a little about that?
Dana Larsen: I just finished writing a novel, a humorous novel, called The Hashtastic Voyages of Sinbad the Strain Hunter, and I’ve been working on it for a couple of years.
I had to self-publish those books and I’ve certainly sold a lot of copies and never had any legal issues, but I’m hoping this book, which I’m quite proud of and think people will enjoy reading, I’m hoping to get an actual publisher for it and get better distribution.
The story follows Sinbad Strainhunter on his seven voyages around the world where he encounters all different kinds of strange cannabis strains and has amazing adventures. It’s a lot of fun and I think people will enjoy the story if I can just get it out there.
Isn’t Sinbad in the public domain now?
Dana Larsen: Yes, Sinbad’s totally a public domain character, so there’s no copyright or anything like that because Sinbad’s been around forever. I’ve been doing these kinds of books for many years and I think the publishers I approached before were just being risk-averse.
I’m really excited about this book and I’ve been sending it to other publishers and I’d love to get a real distribution deal on it and get it out to a larger audience.
That would be amazing. Maybe there’s potential to do a cannabis-themed Greek mythology kind of series or something, too.
Dana Larsen: I think there’s room for a lot of cannabis books, stories and parodies. There’s a lot of people writing about cannabis and I like to think I have a unique approach when it comes to how I write about cannabis and cannabis culture and considering what’s going on in the world these days, you’d think books about cannabis would be very popular.
Was there anything you’re working on that you’d like to talk about or mention?
Dana Larsen: I’m still giving away cannabis seeds and I’m hoping to give away a few million more seeds next year and encourage people to plant them in public places.
I’ve given away over 9 million cannabis seeds over the last 3 years and I think we’ll top 10 million next year.
With the legalization of cannabis, there’s a lot to celebrate but there’s also a lot to be concerned about and I think we need to keep sticking together as a movement and not abandon the tactics that have been so successful for us.
Civil disobedience- beginning with bongs and pipes and then cannabis seeds, and then rallies and 420 events and then seed banks and then dispensaries, and now this seed giveaway- has taken us to where we’re at today, in terms of the beginning of the end of cannabis prohibition.
I think the time is now for more civil disobedience, not less, and with the government backing down from cannabis prohibition, we need to step up our efforts and continue this fight.
We should not be surrendering right when we’re on the verge of victory!
How do you feel about the dispensaries voluntarily shutting down in the hopes of getting licensed?
Dana Larsen: I’m not against those who want to transition into the legal system, but I think it’s bizarre that the government has convinced so many dispensaries to shut down on the verge of legalization after years of being open and serving members.
I expect that within a year or so, the vast majority of dispensaries that shut down in the hopes of getting a permit will regret it because they’re going to lose their members, income, and location.
Maybe I’m wrong and maybe I’ll regret keeping my place open, but I really think that the government- whether municipal, provincial, or federal- has never really shown any real support to the cannabis movement and I know some dispensaries that closed down over the last two years hoping to get a permit from the city- and not one of them got a permit.
In fact, for the vast majority of places in Vancouver, it’s impossible to get a permit under the current bylaws, and I don’t think those bylaws are going to change much, which means that the vast majority of dispensaries existing in Vancouver have no choice to either stay open or shut down forever.
I think between those two choices, staying open is what I’m going to be doing.
Thanks for the interview, Dana Larsen. It was very informative and enlightening.