An expert panel looking to reduce the number of toxic drug deaths in B.C. has released a framework for the provincial government to follow to roll out a safer supply.
The panel had previously released a report in March 2022 advising on reducing the number of toxic drug deaths, and 20 months later the panel has released another report urging the government to act to address the continuing high numbers of people dying.
“This report is the result of a tremendous amount of collaboration and problem solving,” said Michael Egilson, panel chair.
“The experts on the panel were thoughtful, committed and practical in identifying an approach that we feel can guide future efforts to expand access to viable alternatives to an illicit supply of substances that is only increasing in volatility and toxicity. Our goal was to demonstrate a way forward that reflects a sense of urgency that is commensurate with the scale of the crisis – a way that can be rolled out quickly in order to save lives now. I believe this report accomplishes just that.”
Between the release of the first report in March 2022, and the second report, 3,791 people died due to the toxic drug supply in B.C., according to numbers released in the coroners report. Since the public health emergency was declared in April 2016, at least 13,112 people have died due to toxic drugs.
Story continues below
The first recommendation in the 2022 report was to provide a safer supply of drugs.
“The current medical model for safe supply faces a number of overwhelming challenges,” said Egilson. “Non-medical models to distribute a safer supply is needed.”
The panel notes expanding the current model would place additional strain on an already overburdened health care system, where it is estimated 20 per cent of people in the province do not have a primary care provider.
Within B.C., there already is a medical model to provide a safer supply, though only fewer than 5,000 people per month have access to this safer supply of the estimated 225,000 British Columbians who use unregulated substances.
Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions was quick to reject the proposal.
“I think any model that looks at withdrawing medical oversight is not a direction we’re moving in,” said Whiteside.
The minister’s response was conveyed mid-press conference to B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, catching her off guard.
“I haven’t seen that letter,” said Lapointe. “It’s disappointing.”
Whiteside says the NDP government is looking at instead, improving access to pharmaceutical alternatives.
It’s something BC United says this government has been too slow on.
“They’ve completely failed to scale up people’s access to pharmaceutical alternatives,” said Elenore Sturko, the BC United shadow minister for mental health and addictions.
The expert panel has four recommendations for the province to roll out a safer supply.
First is to apply to the federal health minister and mental health and addictions minister for a class exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act (CDSA) to allow access without a prescription for people at risk of dying due to the toxic drug supply.
Second, develop an application for agencies to apply to be licensed and delegated authority to distribute the regulated substances.
Third, engage with people with lived and living experience with substance use and their families.
Finally, B.C.’s ministry of mental health and addictions, ministry of health and ministry of Indigenous relations and reconciliation should engage with Indigenous leadership to identify Indigenous solutions to the crisis.
“While the concept of safer supply may be challenging for some to understand, the expert members of the panel have provided a thoughtful and careful way forward and out of this crisis. It is clear that safer supply is only one piece in a necessary continuum of care for British Columbians at serious risk of death,” said Lapointe.
“While that continuum of care is being developed, thousands more of our family members, friends and colleagues are at risk of dying. As the panel found, urgent access to a safe alternative to the current toxic, unregulated and ever-growing illicit drug market is necessary to keep people alive.”
In September 2023, there were 175 suspected unregulated drug deaths which is a 10 per cent decrease from September 2022 and two per cent decrease from August 2023.
This amounts of 5.8 people dying per day. In 2023, 80 per cent of the deaths have occurred inside, 48 per cent in a private residence, 32 per cent inside other residences, and 19 per cent have occurred outside.
In Island Health, 34 people died in September, up from 26 in August.
Greater Victoria has had the third most deaths in the province with 118 in 2023, Nanaimo has had 89 deaths, which is the fourth most in the province.
Story continues below
This call from the expert panel comes one week after the Vancouver Police Department conducted a raid at the offices of the Drug User Liberation Front, which is a Vancouver group that hands out a safer supply of drugs to prevent overdoses in the city. Vancouver has the highest number of drug deaths with 473 in 2023.
DULF and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users requested the temporary Criminal Code exemption from Health Canada to operate a compassion club model for hard drugs in 2021, but was rejected. The application was backed by Vancouver city council, Vancouver Coastal health and experts from the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.
DULF co-founder Garth Mullins said the group was founded “because no one else was coming to save us.”
“We asked Health Canada for permission to do it legally and they said no. None of us want to be outlaws in this but they forced us to. I can’t believe two of my friends got arrested for saving lives,” he said to CBC.
READ MORE FROM CBC: Vancouver police arrest 2 after raids on Drug User Liberation Front