B.C. to offer Canada’s first, permanent safe drug supply in response to overdose crisis

B.C. will be the first province in Canada to permanently provide access to a safe drug supply, in an effort to reduce a staggering number of overdose deaths — a groundbreaking step that is being hailed as life-saving but also criticized for taking so long to achieve and not going far enough.

The move comes after more than 7,000 British Columbians have died from toxic drugs since a public health emergency was declared in 2016 — a crisis that grew worse with the introduction of pandemic restrictions.

And the new rollout will begin slowly, at pre-existing clinics that already offer pharmaceutical replacement drugs as part of a trial program. It will at first offer just opioid replacement options, including fentanyl patches and tablets. Stimulants or prescribed heroin will not be part of the first phase.

In response to questions about whether the government is acting quickly enough to save the lives of drug users who are being fatally poisoned at a rate of five people a day, officials with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions argued they are moving as fast as they can with the innovative program.

“I would have loved it to be faster, I would have loved to have prevented (the overdose deaths) from happening,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who called for a regulated opioid supply two years ago, said at the government announcement Thursday.

“(But) we’ve learned a lot about what people need, the substances people need to support them now. And I’m just happy we’re moving forward as quickly as we can right now.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the existing overdose crisis, the B.C. government created a temporary safe supply program, allowing doctors and nurses to prescribe medication alternatives to substances, including opioids, alcohol, stimulants and benzodiazepines.

Now, $22.6 million has been earmarked over the next three years for the five health authorities to make this safe supply a permanent option, starting with opioids. Fentanyl patches had previously been offered in a limited trial project, and that will now be significantly expanded.

“Nowhere else in Canada can anybody be prescribed a fentanyl patch for this purpose, so that really is a breakthrough, and is based on input that we heard strongly through our consultations (with drug users),” Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson told Postmedia, adding she doesn’t agree the program rollout is moving too slowly.

“When you are the first, then sometimes it takes a little bit longer than you’d like … (but) absolutely, we feel the urgency of the public health emergency.”

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