Drug-vending machine pitched to cut overdose deaths

A vending machine that distributes hydromorphone pills to people with opioid addictions — who will likely crush and inject them — is one idea being explored in a pilot project to curb overdose deaths.

“Right now, we’re asking people to go to an alley to buy drugs that are likely poisoned [with fentanyl],” said project leader Dr. Mark Tyndall from B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control, at the South Island Community Overdose Response Network symposium at Victoria City Hall this past week.

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“What I’m proposing is not nearly as crazy. We need to blanket the province with an opportunity to get safer drugs.”

Opioid overdoses are on track to kill more than 1,400 British Columbians this year.

At a similar event in Victoria last year, Tyndall said, he expressed support for supervised consumption sites, which were still rare. The overdose-prevention sites were quickly opened as an emergency service across the province, although they were technically illegal, as they did not have federal approval.

“Which I think is a great lesson in how we need to move ahead and do the right thing,” said Tyndall, who received $1 million from Health Canada for the pilot project seeking to expand access to hydromorphone, an opioid-replacement therapy.

“Government will not lead the change. What we can hope is that they are supportive of good ideas, not obstructionist, and give some funding.”

Tyndall said his hydromorphone pilot project differs from use of injectible opioid-replacement therapies in a clinical setting, because it is focused on lower-barrier access — such as possibly being available at supervised consumption sites. “It’s a model that can also be rapidly scaled up.”

Dilaudid, the brand of hydromorphone pill that would be used, is about 32 cents a pill, compared with $25 or $100 for a vial of injectible hydromorphone.

Tyndall said he recognizes that some users might share or sell drugs, but those risks need to be balanced against the risks of people buying poisoned drugs.

Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health and executive director for the new Overdose Emergency Response Centre, said the ultimate reason for the overdose crisis is contamination of the illegal drug supply.

“If we have a contaminant in our food supply or in a legal drug, we will take it off the shelf and replace it with a safe one,” she said.

“We need to consider all these innovative ideas.”

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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