B.C.’s prescribed safer supply program expands to reduce overdoses and deaths from illicit drugs

People in B.C. who use toxic illicit drugs and are at risk of overdosing or dying will soon be able to access alternative drugs, the minister of mental health and addictions announced Thursday.

During a news conference, Sheila Malcolmson said the expanded safer supply program will help save lives by offering a substitute to poisoned street drugs to reduce overdose deaths.

She said the new policy will allow people who have been clinically assessed to have access to prescribed alternative drugs, like oral opioids, as a way to replace drugs that could be laced with potentially deadly fentanyl.

“At the start of the pandemic, B.C. provided access to some prescribed safer supply medications to save lives from overdose and protect people from COVID-19,” Malcolmson said.

“This is one tool within a comprehensive response to the overdose crisis as we continue to also build up a treatment system so everyone can get the care they need.”

She said substitutes including fentanyl patches are already being used and the expanded program will continue to add more alternative drugs.

The ministry says the program will be available through clinics that currently prescribe alternatives to illicit drugs, which may be expanded after health authorities produce implementation plans at the end of the month.

Doctors reluctant to prescribe medications to substance users are expected to be provided with training, and the prescribed drugs will be covered by PharmaCare.

Coun. Jean Swanson hands out free drugs including meth, heroin and cocaine to people outside the Vancouver Police Department offices in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver city councillor hands out drugs

Vancouver’s Coun. Jean Swanson criticized the new policy on CBC’s The Early Edition Friday, two days after she joined drug activists in front of the Downtown Eastside’s community police station to hand out pre-tested packets of heroin, meth and cocaine to users at the demonstration.

She said the province’s plan lacks input from drug users themselves and that having to go to a clinical setting to be assessed before being supplied is a challenge for people who don’t have access to a phone. 

“If you’re going to design a policy for somebody, you have to consult with them about what would work,” said Swanson.

“The folks that I work with at VANDU [the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users] and Drug User Liberation Front [DULF], say that they don’t think it’ll work very well. It’s too bureaucratic. It doesn’t cover stimulants. It probably doesn’t cover folks who just use occasionally. And it’s not going to meet the need,” she added.

Swanson’s actions on Wednesday sparked a reaction on social media the same day from Coun. Melissa De Genova who likened her distributing safe drugs to trafficking.

Swanson instead likened her actions to those of Vancouver activists who years ago illegally set up supervised injection site to pressure governments to act. Now, these sites are a government-sanctioned and critical for keeping people alive when so many drugs are laced with lethal poison.

She said the drugs she gave away were tested by people she has worked with for years and trusts implicitly.

“If two groups that don’t have a lot of resources like DUFL and VANDU [can] distribute safe drugs, having them all tested, then why can’t the government that has billions in its budget do the same thing?” said Swanson.

A man holds boxes containing cocaine, meth and heroin that was given out by Swanson during a demonstration to support a safe drug supply on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

More work needed, says Green leader

Sonia Furstenau, leader of the B.C. Green Party and MLA for Cowichan Valley, said the xpansion of the prescribed safer supply policy is a step in the right direction, but not enough to provide a low-barrier and accessible safe supply.

“Ultimately the province is still relying on a prescriber model that puts barriers between drug users and a safe supply. It will not be enough to drastically reduce the deaths from the toxic street supply,” she said in a written statement. 

She said prescribers are few and far between, especially outside the Lower Mainland, and drug users living in more rural areas will inevitably turn to illicit drugs if they can’t access a prescription or the right alternative.

“Communities on both sides are being clear that a prescriber model comes with many complications,” Furstenau said.

“A compassion club or co-op model is one such low-barrier model that can provide immediate benefits for drug users across B.C., and that model is scalable.”

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