As B.C.’s poisoned drug supply continues to kill an average of 145 people a month, Green MLAs are highlighting yawning gaps in policies that advocates say could save lives.
During legislature question period on Monday, Green MLA Adam Olsen asked Sheila Malcolmson, the minister of mental health and addictions, why it was taking so long to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to tainted street drugs.
B.C.’s overdose crisis worsened alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, with the illegal drug supply becoming even more toxic and people more likely to use alone because of pandemic restrictions. In 2020, 1,726 lost their lives to poisoned drugs, a 75-per-cent increase compared to 2019.
There’s no indication the number of deaths is slowing: 165 people died in January, the highest number of deaths ever recorded in that month.
Olsen said the government has failed to deliver on its promise to provide an alternative to deadly illicit drugs.
“The promise of safer supply being prescribed through nurses has fallen short,” said Olsen, MLA for North Saanich and the Islands.
“Those trying to access prescription opioids through their doctors have been met with stigma. The prescribed narcotics have been low potency, compared to the street-grade fentanyl currently in circulation. It’s not curbing their addiction. We must do better.”
B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a public health order in September that allowed registered nurses and psychiatric nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs.
But five months later, that health order has still not been put into action, and Olsen pointed out that over 700 people have died since the order was put in place.
While 30 nurses have been trained to prescribe Suboxone, an opioid replacement medication, critics say that falls short of true safer supply, which would provide pharmaceutical-grade versions of illicit substances instead of alternatives.
In response to Olsen’s question, Malcolmson said the guidance for safe supply prescribing is “still being developed by the medical community.”
“This isn’t a question of what’s happening inside the ministry,” she said. “This is the work that doctors and medical professionals are doing to ensure that the right types of medications are included in the guidance and that the guidance supports both patient safety and prescribers.”
On Tuesday, Green Leader Sonia Furstenau followed up with questions about why B.C. hasn’t moved to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use, a recommendation made by Henry in 2019.
Malcolmson said the Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has already asked police to treat possession for personal use “as a health-care matter, not as a criminal priority.”
“Last summer the premier wrote to the prime minister asking the prime minister, because this is a federal matter, to adopt a nationwide approach to decriminalization,” Malcolmson said. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not write back, she added.
The City of Vancouver is trying to move forward on its own to decriminalize possession for personal use and is attempting to get a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act within city limits.
Karen Ward, an advocate for drug users who works with the City of Vancouver, said it’s important that Olsen and Furstenau drew attention to the gaps in safe supply and delays in decriminalization, measures that experts say could save lives.
Since the last provincial election, the balance of power has shifted in the legislature. The NDP now has a majority and no longer need the support of the Green MLAs to govern.
But Ward said she rarely hears questions about safe supply and decriminalization from the opposition BC Liberals. During the election campaign, the BC Liberals emphasized the crime associated with drug use and homelessness and talked about the need for more supportive housing and treatment beds.
“It was law and order and put people away, and let’s get some institutions in here and so forth,” Ward said. “This is very different, obviously, and it’s great to see.”
Ward lives in the Downtown Eastside, a Vancouver neighbourhood that has been hit particularly hard by the poisoned drugs crisis. She said she’s seen huge positive changes in friends and neighbours who have been prescribed safe supply, and it’s freed them from a toxic cycle of spending all their time trying to source and buy illicit drugs.
“You get time back — you know, that’s just transformative,” Ward said.
“What everybody says is ‘My God, the time I just got back, I don’t know what to do with myself. I can't believe that’s what I was like.’ It was partly the hustle, partly waiting for your dealer, and time is not your own. You’re always at the whim of something else. So getting all that time back — and not being sick.”
Examples of pharmaceutical alternatives being prescribed now as safe supply include hydromorphone or Dilaudid. Those drugs replace street drugs tainted with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and often further mixed with unregulated benzodiazepines, which increases the difficulty in reversing the effects of toxic drugs.
But many people who use drugs have struggled to find the right prescription, in the right amount, to fully replace the street drug they were taking.
Olsen said it’s important for him to raise the issue because he hears daily from his constituents about how the overdose crisis is affecting them and their families.
“There is a deeply entrenched perspective that drug use or drug users are bad, they are less than human,” Olsen said. “I think the reality of the drug poisonings that we’ve seen have come from an incredibly toxic street supply… we need to see ministry that is recognizing the challenges rather than kind of talking over or talking through people who are bringing these issues up.”
Read more: Health, BC Politics
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