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Health leaders reject allegation 'safe supply' adds to drug deaths

“We have been concerned about this increasingly polarized rhetoric that is not informed by evidence,” says chief coroner Lisa Lapointe
Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner, says fentanyl remains the “main and most consistent and deadly driver” of the toxic drug crisis. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

B.C. health leaders pushed back Monday on suggestions that “safe supply” prescribed drugs aimed at curbing overdoses are worsening the drug crisis.

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who wants federal funding for safe supply diverted to treatment, has alleged prescription hydromorphone is being “sold to kids” by drug users in the program to buy stronger drugs like fentanyl, while BC United mental health and addictions critic Elenore Sturko said last month that hydromorphone prescribed as part of the safe supply program is making its way onto the street to be sold or traded for other drugs.

At a news conference at the legislature, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said she and her colleagues are focused on saving as many lives as possible, including by reducing harms, but they are also constantly reviewing any new trends or risks to the public, and data doesn’t support the suggestion that safe supply is adding to drug deaths.

“We have been concerned about this increasingly polarized rhetoric that is not informed by evidence, that is not paying attention to evidence, as a matter of fact, and is sharing opinion or anecdote that, in fact, is clearly not defensible if you look at the data.”

Lapointe said fentanyl remains the “main and most consistent and deadly driver” of the toxic drug crisis. “To date, neither hydromorphone nor [animal tranquilizer] xylazine are present in a significant number [of deaths],” said the chief coroner, noting harm-reduction measures including safe supply were agreed to by an all-party standing committee following recommendations from two death-review panels.

Since 2016, fentanyl has routinely been involved in 80 per cent of deaths due to drug poisoning in B.C. and was present in 86 per cent of deaths attributed to unregulated substances in 2020, she said.

It’s estimated that more than 100,000 people in B.C. have an opioid use disorder, which doesn’t include British Columbians who use illicit opioids occasionally, or those who use stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamines, all of whom are at risk from the toxic drug supply, Lapointe said.

Sturko has asked the government to release more data about its drug-supply and addiction-treatment policies to show what does and doesn’t work.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said early evidence shows safe-supply medications reduce the risk of death due to toxic drugs, improve engagement in health care, including addiction treatment, and improve people’s overall physical and mental health.

“But we are hearing from clinicians that this prescribing, particularly of hydromorphone, is not meeting many people’s needs and they are hearing concerning stories,” she said — including the drug being sold on the street for profit in order to obtain harder drugs. “So the program needs to be reviewed, given the situation we are in right now.”

On the other hand, people who use drugs say access remains a challenge, with fewer than five per cent able to access a safer supply.

“There is no doubt new innovation and new innovative measures will need to be adapted as we learn and as we develop our evidence,” said Henry, stressing that treatment and prevention remain important tools to address the crisis.

Children and youth representative Jennifer Charlesworth said the injuries and deaths reported to her office are the result of youth accessing the illicit supply, adding they are using drugs “to cope with the trauma that they are dealing with in their life.”

In 2022, 34 children under the age of 19 died from toxic drug poisonings.

“Safe supply is an alternative to the poison that is available on the street and I’ll repeat for emphasis what I said earlier — there’s no indication from our data that diverted safe supply is causing overdoses for children and youth,” said Charlesworth. “Different perspectives are invaluable in the face of this complex foe, but this is no time for polarizing, fear-driven, and often political conflicts.”

Dr. Kelsey Louie, deputy chief medical officer for the First Nation Health Authority, said there is “no one-stop shop, or quick solution to ending the drug crisis,” as evidenced by similar toxic drug poisonings in other parts of Canada and the United States.

“Given that lives are at stake, this is not a time for division, but for people from all walks of life and political persuasions to come together with a common purpose, to find creative solutions to a problem that affects us all in some way, and ­especially those who use drugs, their friends, their families, and their ­co-workers,” he said.

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