Small fraction of opioid-dependent users access 'safe supply' in B.C.

Safe supply not widespread

While Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has called Canada's so-called "safer supply" of hard drugs a "dangerous experiment," a small fraction of people suffering from addiction are actually accessing the program in B.C.

Last week, MPs voted down a Conservative motion calling for an end to the federal government's “safer supply” program, which provides a pharmaceutical alternative to the largely poisoned street supply. Poilievre and others have criticized the program, claiming it fuels addiction.

Nearly 35,000 people in Canada died from opioid toxicity between 2016 and 2022, and the B.C. government declared an overdose state of emergency back in April 2016,

In response to the drastic uptick in toxic drug deaths, one part of the government's harm reduction strategy has been the introduction of a “safer supply” of prescribed opioids to those who would otherwise use toxic street drugs. The idea is that those who are addicted will use substances one way or another, and supplying unadulterated substances will help prevent deaths caused from the poisoned illicit drug supply.

In recent months, Poilievre and others have pointed to the government-funded supply of hard drugs as a contributor to the overdose crisis.

“The experiment has failed. It's time to end Trudeau's failed hard-drug supply project,” Poilievre posted to Twitter Wednesday, adding that he'd end the program if his party is elected to government. The program is clearly a political attack point for Poilievre, who's posted about it on Twitter nine times in the past week alone.

B.C's chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has previously said “there is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths."

According to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions just 4,916 people in the province received opioid prescribed safe supply in April 2023, a small fraction of the estimated 90,000 people who are dependent on opioids in the province. In the Interior Health region, just 739 people received opioid prescribed safe supply.

Interior Health says while they don't monitor the number of people with Opioid Use Disorder in the region, a researcher's model estimates there are 19,435 people in the Interior who are dependent on opioids. That means less than four per cent of these people are actually accessing prescribed safe supply.

Meanwhile, 4,168 people are using opioid agonist treatment, like methadone, in the Interior Health region as of April 2023.

Those figures do not include people addicted to other substances like cocaine or methamphetamine.

Moms Stop the Harm is a now Canada-wide organization made up of hundreds of people whose loved ones have suffered from substance use. The organization, which was started in 2015, advocates for an expansion of Canada's safe supply of substances and an end to the war on drugs.

Helen Jennens, a Kelowna member of the group who lost both of her sons to opioids, says the current prescribed “safer supply” program that's drawn the ire of some politicians needs to expand substantially to be effective in saving lives.

“That's what Moms Stop the Harm is all about right now, is saving lives,” said Jennens. “We want treatment and recovery desperately, but treatment and recovery only works for somebody who's living, so we're working for safe supply.

“We need a safe, regulated supply of drugs provided to people ... that's what we need immediately, that's what will stop some of the deaths. And then we need to put a whole bunch of money into treatment and recovery.”

Close to 12,000 people have died from illicit drug toxicity since B.C. declared its state of emergency in April 2016.

“This is seven years since we declared a state of emergency in British Columbia and almost 12,000 people have died since,” Jennens said. “So what is a state of emergency? What do we consider a state of emergency if we can allow 12,000 more deaths?

“We're not doing this for our kids, because they're gone, we're doing this for your kids. We need you to buy in and try and learn about it ... If you're not angry, you're not paying attention. If 12,000 deaths in British Columbia don't bug you, what does?”

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