VANCOUVER -- An automatic dispensing machine is now up and running on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It works similar to an ATM, but instead of cash, it dispenses opioids.

The My Safe Project is the brain child of longtime safe drug supply advocate Dr. Mark Tyndall, a UBC professor who specializes in public health. He says it gives people access to "a safe supply of opioids with dignity, autonomy and control."

It's made of steel, weighs more than 700 pounds, and is bolted to the floor. It can hold the prescriptions for 48 people.

"This is a locked box for people's prescriptions, so they're assessed like normal. I write them a prescription. The pharmacy dispenses those drugs," said Dr. Tyndall.

How does it work?

The machine contains tablets of hydromorphone, and only people who are enrolled in the study are able to access them.

All participants undergo a complete evaluation around their drug use, health status and social situation. They have to be regular opioid users with a history of overdose and fentanyl detected in their systems. There will be regular follow-up with a health professional and an opportunity to connect with staff at any time.

Eight people are currently enrolled in the program, including Derick Walker. He’s been involved with the pilot since it launched eight weeks ago, and has been living with addiction since he was 13 years old. He’s now 42.

"I get given this opportunity to have this choice rather than going to a back alley dealer and gambling with my life," said Walker.

Don Durban is one of three people who were accepted into the program Thursday. He’s been struggling with pain management and addiction since the mid-90s.

"I’m pretty happy about it (the program), to be able to access clean medication, you don't have worry about getting poisoned and buying it on the street," he said.

Tyndall says it’s a benefit to people who don’t want to go to safe injection sites.

"I really feel this is part of a trajectory for people and this is the first step for many. And asking them to jump into a recovery program, we know for the vast majority, 90 per cent of people, that is just not an option right now,” said Tyndall.

"We have to get over ourselves in thinking that everybody should just stop using drugs and go into a recovery program because clearly that is just not going to work."

The machine is set up next to the Overdose Prevention Site on Hastings Street.

The latest government report found there were 702 fentanyl-related deaths in B.C. in 2019 and 182 of those were in Vancouver.