July 20th, 2024

B.C. should explore non-prescribed alternatives to fentanyl to combat crisis: Henry

By The Canadian Press on July 11, 2024.

British Columbia's provincial health officer has recommended that the province expand its "safer supply" program to combat deaths from unregulated drugs — including looking at ways to grant access to alternatives without requiring a prescription. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks during a press conference at the legislature in Victoria, Thursday, March 10, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VICTORIA – A report from B.C.’s provincial health officer recommends the province expand its “safer supply” program to prevent overdoses, including allowing access to alternatives to unregulated drugs without a prescription.

Dr. Bonnie Henry says in her latest report on the overdose crisis that efforts centred on drug prohibition have not only failed to control access to controlled substances but have also created the toxic unregulated drug supply that has killed thousands since a health emergency was declared eight years ago.

Her report echoes the findings from former chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, who said in January before leaving her post that prescribed safer-supply drugs would not solve the crisis that has already claimed more than 14,000 lives in British Columbia since 2016.

At the time, B.C. Premier David Eby rejected Lapointe’s pleas, saying he did not believe distribution of opioid drugs should happen without the supervision of medical professionals.

Henry says in her report that 225,000 or more people in B.C. are accessing unregulated drugs and fentanyl continues to be the main killer, with 83 per cent of illicit drug deaths linked to the opioid.

Henry says a system to allow access to safer, regulated alternatives to fentanyl and other drugs is necessary, because a significant number of people who died from the unregulated drug supply did not have substance-use disorders and cannot be protected by “medicalized approaches.”

“Ultimately, we cannot prescribe our way out of this crisis,” Henry says in the report. “Finding new ways to enable access to alternatives to unregulated drugs will require bold conversations, system-level changes, and thinking outside of the constraints that have so far failed to turn this crisis around.”

B.C.’s current prescribed safer-supply policy has been intensely debated within the province and beyond, with federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith both claiming that drugs from the program were being diverted into the rest of Canada.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has said that there’s no evidence of widespread diversion of safe-supply drugs, and Henry says in the latest report that “anecdotes may not reflect the experience of most people who are prescribed alternatives to unregulated drugs.”

“Ongoing monitoring, evaluation and research is required to assess the degree to which diversion is occurring, and its impacts,” Henry says in the 88-page report.

Henry also criticized prohibition-based drug policies, saying Canada has a long history of such laws “that are rooted in racism, colonialism and xenophobia.”

The report says community-based “compassion clubs,” such as the one operated by the Drug User Liberation Front, or DULF, could be potential models for safer-supply access without prescriptions.

DULF co-founders Jeremy Kalicum and Eris Nyx were arrested last October, closing the “compassion club” service after about a year in operation.

They were charged in June with three counts each of possession for the purpose of trafficking.

Vancouver police said at the time of their arrest that while it acknowledged DULF had been operating in an attempt to reduce “impacts of the toxic drug supply,” the authorities have to uphold and enforce existing laws.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2024.

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