By CBC

Health advocates say a safe supply of opioids is critical to help prevent people from overdosing on tainted street drugs. 

Now, a pilot project in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside provides some high-risk users with access to an automated machine that dispenses opioids prescribed by a doctor.

CBC takes a look at how it works.

How does the machine operate?

The machine, called MySafe, is stocked with hydromorphone tablets that are released on a pre-determined schedule to high-risk opioid users. A user must scan their palm on the machine to identify themselves. The machine recognizes each individual by verifying the vein pattern in their hand and then dispenses their prescription.

Made of steel and bolted to the floor, MySafe resembles an ATM or vending machine. It logs every package that is released and sends that information to a web feed that only program administrators can access.

Why is it needed?

Thousands of Canadians have lost their lives to the opioid crisis. In British Columbia, close to 5,000 people have died from overdoses since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016.

A toxic drug supply, often contaminated by a powerful opioid called fentanyl, is responsible for at least 80 per cent of overdose deaths in B.C. in the past three years, according to the province's coroners service.

"I think the only ethical response in this situation is to at least give people an alternative of a safe pharmaceutical drug that they will not overdose on," said MySafe founder and infectious disease doctor Mark Tyndall.

Tyndall says unlike methadone treatment, which is considered an abstinence-based program and helps addicts only with cravings and withdrawal symptoms, prescribed hydromorphone still gives users a high without the risk of death.