Nanaimo peer outreach program relies on cannabis and pop-up injection sites in fight against opioid dependency

The peer outreach team helps Nanaimo's street entrenched turn over a new leaf

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"It was only four years ago that I was shooting up in bathrooms, struggling against my addiction, suicidal, hopeless, and in total despair,” says Sapha Habibi over the phone to the Georgia Straight.

For 16 years, he battled a self-destructive cycle propelled by the unremitting grasp of cocaine, opiates, and alcohol. In 2015, with the help of a long-time friend, he began the steps to “find freedom”—a term he now uses to combat stigma surrounding drug dependency.

During his recovery, he turned to holistic nutrition and plant medicine to manage his withdrawal symptoms, pain, and mental-health issues. He discovered that cannabis was effective at combatting the physical upheaval caused by depriving his body of chemicals it craved, but the now legal plant also triggered a conscious awakening needed to empower his recovery.

“When you become aware, you have all the power in the world to change. But you have to become aware first,” he says.

After completing a treatment program in Saskatchewan, Habibi moved to Nanaimo and began growing his own medicine under an old medical cultivation licence. He quickly realized his surplus of product could help those who were simply being prescribed a pill for their recovery.

Today he is the founder of Theraveda Craft Inc., a cannabis-cultivation company based in Nanaimo, and he fights the opioid epidemic through a drug-user advocacy program called New Leaf Outreach that he and advocate Kevin Donaghy created with peers. The grassroots coalition provides frontline harm-reduction efforts, like peer-to-peer counselling and substitution resources, to the city’s street-entrenched youth and drug-user population.

New Leaf Outreach was founded by Kevin Donaghy (left), Sapha Habibi (right), and a team of their peers with lived experience in overcoming substance addiction.
Pamela Evelyn

The program, which comprises registered nurses and volunteers—all with lived experience as former and recovering addicts—implants a pop-up injection site in the heart of neighbourhoods most affected by the fentanyl-overdose crisis. There, it serves as a clean, safe alternative to alleyways and public washrooms but also an important community hub for locals to build a support network.

Depending on the night, the pop-up services 100 to 180 people.

One of the main resources New Leaf offers the community is free medicinal cannabis—tinctures, capsules, and flower, all meant to help manage the symptoms of detox. But Habibi says it goes far beyond the physical easing of nausea, aches, and vomiting associated with withdrawal.

“It’s probably one of the most versatile treatments to addiction because it has the ability to do so many different things,” he says, adding that the outreach program focuses on a holistic approach to recovery.

“Cannabis also gives people a heightened sense of inner peace, love, awareness. It can help improve people’s consciousness. It contributes to the whole spectrum of what somebody experiencing withdrawal needs.”

In the early days, the organization ran entirely on private donations and fundraising efforts—primarily from cannabis companies in the unregulated sector. Habibi has since started the process of transitioning his company into the newly regulated industry. Theraveda was recently acquired by Pasha Brands—a cannabis brand house helping craft companies transition to the legal market. The acquisition means funding for New Leaf can start to come from the regulated market. Considering there is no licensing scheme in place for cannabis-substitution programs, that isn’t the case for most organizations right now.

Last August, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) saw its 100th service day of a similar grassroots initiative run in the Downtown Eastside. The program, run by local advocate Neil Magnuson, combats the overdose crisis by handing out substitution care packages, which include prerolls, cannabis-infused edibles, and weed creams, to a line of locals that often extends down the block. Typically, VANDU hands out 160 to 180 care packs to the city’s homeless and drug-user population at each event.

“The trick is getting enough donations to sustain this kind of program,” Magnuson told the Straight last August.

“We get no help from the city, none. We rely entirely on contributions and volunteers. I guess I get help in the sense that the cops don’t come here to arrest me,” he says.

Habibi says with his latest efforts to go legal he intends to be more vocal about the blooming industry’s support of locally run substitution efforts. He hopes there will be a New Leaf, or similar program, in each city being fed funding and supplies by a network of federally licensed producers in the near future.

“We have a community of people here who are vulnerable and susceptible to fatal overdoses. The government isn’t providing an adequate response,” Habibi says.

“Craft cannabis, craft growers, and the fellowship of the cannabis community—we know that these people need our help. We got tired of asking for it, so we just did it ourselves…going forward, it would require a very small percentage of those proceeds to support drug-substitution and addiction-recovery programs.”

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