In the same week Canada’s government predicted 4,000 people will die of opioid overdoses this year, BC’s Centre for Disease Control got a green light to provide safe medical-grade opioids to at-risk users.
As first reported* by the Victoria Times-Colonist, a new pilot project is expected to give out hydromorphone pills to registered users in April 2018, likely at local supervised consumption sites or supportive housing. Entrenched opioid users registered with the health agency will be given three free doses daily.
BCCDC executive director Mark Tyndall told the Globe the initiative is meant to slow the province’s overdose death toll, which has intensified along with the proliferation of synthetic opioids like fentanyl. In BC, more than 1,200 people have already died of illicit drug overdoses since January.
A clean, medical-grade alternative to the illegal drug market is something harm reduction advocates have been asking for since a public health emergency was first declared in April 2016.
“It’s obviously really good news, it’s the right thing to do, it’ll save a lot of lives, and it’ll give people an alternative,” Overdose Prevention Society founder Sarah Blyth told VICE. “I think the government should be proud they’re moving forward on this, even though it’s been a bit slower than we’d like in a crisis situation.”
Blyth’s volunteer overdose prevention team just moved into an indoor space at 58 Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, long considered to be ground zero of a nation-wide overdose epidemic. She says removing organized crime and street drugs from the equation will do a lot to help the users she sees, who are often dealing with mental and physical disabilities, homelessness, and trauma, on top of fighting addiction.
Drug policy lawyer Caitlin Shane of the Pivot Legal Society applauded the program for its low-barrier, less clinical approach. After a period of supervision, users will reportedly be able to take home their doses for the day and consume them in any manner they see fit. “This really gives people more freedom to live their lives and focus on what’s important,” she told VICE. “Just because they use drugs doesn’t meant they need to be surveilled.”
Pivot has been a longtime advocate for patients accessing a small supervised opioid injection program based in Vancouver. The BCCDC pilot project will be one of the first government-sanctioned supply-based solutions to roll out since a public health emergency was declared last year.
The opioid replacement effort also sets itself apart with its comparatively low cost. At a reported 64 cents per dose, each participant would access free and safe drugs for about $700 a year. Given the high cost of responding to emergency overdoses in the streets, advocates are hoping even their opponents will support more of this work.
“Historically people who’ve been opposed to harm reduction efforts have relied on an argument that it’s a waste of taxpayer money,” Shane told VICE. “Hopefully people who do hold that perspective—that this is a waste of money or whatever—will see it is cost effective.”
The green light comes while the BC government is stepping up its own free overdose-fighting resources. Today BC’s Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy announced that more than 200 participating pharmacies will now offer free take-home naloxone kits.
Advocates like Shane and Blyth acknowledge none of these efforts address the root causes of addiction, but they’re badly needed nonetheless.With more than 100 people dying each month in BC, their only hope is the help comes sooner.
“We really don’t have any time to waste, and unfortunately this has been a pattern we see in all forms of harm reduction,” Shane said. “Communities are stepping up to do the work governments are not doing.”
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*Story updated December 21 to reflect earlier reporting.