B.C.’s snap election has shut down the flow of information on the government’s promised dramatic expansion of safe drug supply programs to combat the overdose crisis.
The new programs, hailed as life-saving by some advocates, were announced Sept. 16 after three of the deadliest months for overdoses in the province’s history. Four days later, Premier John Horgan called the election.
But the election means details on the directive aimed at curbing a surge in overdose deaths won’t come until after the Oct. 24 election at the earliest.
“During the election period, all Government of B.C. communications are limited to health and public safety information, as well as statutory requirements,” wrote a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in an email to The Tyee.
The province had already taken steps to increase the number of people with access to safer alternatives to illicit drugs, which have become increasingly toxic during the pandemic.
Those measures had seen the number of British Columbians taking the pharmaceutical opioid hydromorphone more than triple since provincial prescribing guidance changed in March.
In August, 2,433 British Columbians had access to hydromorphone, a 259-per-cent increase from the 677 who were covered by the program in March.
But that remains a tiny fraction of the number of illicit substance users in the province. The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research reported that in 2015, about 191,000 British Columbians said they had used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months. That did not include cannabis.
The initial expansion, according to figures provided to The Tyee by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, saw a 412-per-cent increase to safer supply in the Northern Health region, from 32 to 167 people prescribed hydromorphone.
Northern Health’s rate of illicit substance overdose deaths is the highest in the province at 40 per 100,000 people and has been increasing while other regions have stabilized or declined.
And Fraser Health, where 343 overdoses have taken place this year — the highest of any region — saw an increase from 101 to 399 active prescriptions since March.
In Vancouver Coastal Health, where the second greatest number of overdoses have taken place in 2020, 1,057 people were receiving hydromorphone in August, up from 240 six months earlier.
The expanded program announced last week is supposed to dramatically increase access, with almost anyone who accesses the illicit drug supply eligible for prescription alternatives. The March order required people to have both a diagnosed substance use disorder and be at risk of COVID-19 exposure.
An order from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also expanded prescribing powers to registered and registered psychiatric nurses in the province.
Henry said Thursday that is already being implemented.
Advocates had hoped for fast action on the changes. Guy Felicella, a peer advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use and the province’s Overdose Emergency Response Centre, said in an interview last week that he had hoped the details of the directive would be announced “in a matter of weeks.”
Henry said in a news conference Thursday that work on the new program with the centre is continuing during the campaign, including deciding which new substances would be included and on new access points.*
“It’s all in play right now, and we’ll be looking at that over the next couple of weeks,” said Henry. The need for further action became apparent, she said, because the pandemic-driven toxicity of the street drug supply put people who use drugs at “intolerable risk.”
In the first eight months of this year 1,068 people have died of overdoses, compared with 983 in all of 2019.
Meanwhile, a key group of advocates working to reduce the deaths say Horgan failed to respond to their concerns in the five weeks before he called the election.
Last month, The Tyee reported that four advocates for people who use drugs quit provincial overdose crisis response committees over what they said was willful government inaction in the face of an increasingly deadly poisoned drug crisis. They called for a meeting with Horgan to address their concerns.
This week, they said Horgan had not responded to their request for a meeting with him.
“I feel betrayed. We came to this work in good faith,” wrote Hawkfeather Peterson, president of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, in a news release.
Horgan has said his government will stay the course on its overdose response strategy if re-elected.
*Story updated on Sept. 28 at 3:46 p.m. following new information from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.