A $2 million pilot project in the Cowichan Valley will bring a safe drug supply to the Cowichan Valley, according to the federal government.
On Wednesday, Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Dary and Dr. Richard Stanwick, Chief Medical Health Officer for Island Health announced approximately $2 million in funding for the pilot project.
The project will provide pharmaceutical-grade medication as an alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply for people in Cowichan Valley who have not responded to other forms of treatment for opioid use disorder.
Selected patients at risk of overdose will have access to hydromorphone tablets from a licensed prescriber at the Cowichan Valley Wellness and Recovery Centre.
The patients will also receive other services, such as peer support, medical care, mental health support and a personal support plan.
The project is a four-year pilot, which will be examined for the development of best practices for safer supply programs.
“It has never been more important to provide harm reduction and treatment services to people who use drugs,” Hajdu said in a statement.
“It is devastating to see that the pandemic has worsened the situation for Canadians struggling with substance use disorders in many parts of the country, including Vancouver Island communities in British Columbia. Providing a safer alternative to street drugs will save lives and help people in Cowichan Valley access treatment and other supports.
The Island Health authority recorded the third-highest rate of overdose deaths in the province this year at 27 per 100,000 people.
B.C. recorded the highest-ever monthly total of overdose deaths in May. The province had a total of 170 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths.
In the Island Health region, suspected deaths caused by drug overdoses reached a historic mark as well with a total of 38. The highest number of deaths previously recorded in a month in the Island Health region was 28, reached in both January and March of 2018.
“This medication option will provide a life-saving alternative to the contaminated drug supply that is driving our drug poisoning crisis. The recent increase in overdose deaths in communities within Island Health shows a clear need for better access to a safer drug supply,” Stanwick said in a statement regarding Wednesday’s announcement.
According to the federal government, there is a growing number of programs now offering injectable opioid agonist treatment using opioids such as hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine, for patients where other treatment options have not worked.
The government said early findings have found that using pharmaceutical-grade medications, such as hydromorphone, as an alternative to highly toxic street drugs for people at risk of overdose, can help to save lives and improve health outcomes.
“It can also help establish an entry to care and treatment for people with substance use disorder. Some medication-assisted treatment for severe opioid use disorder has been approved and is available in Canada for use by qualified healthcare professionals. These medications include injectable hydromorphone, methadone, and buprenorphine products,” the federal government said in a release.
The Cowichan Valley project is part of the federal investment of $76.2 million announced in July 2019 for new measures to scale up lifesaving measures, protect people from an illegal drug supply that contains toxic fentanyl, and address the growing methamphetamine use. Funding for the project comes from Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP).
The executive director of Victoria’s Solid Outreach, Jack Phillips says legal, safer drugs will be life-changing and life-saving. said everyone here knows someone who’s died from a drug overdose.
“If you gave somebody something that they needed, they get up in the morning, according to their doctor’s orders. They do what they are told to do. They regain stability and surety in their life.”
B.C.’s former Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, also applauded the move.
“That’s a great piece of news. It’s greatly needed. there are a number of places, well basically all of BC is affected by this crisis. It’s not just the Downtown Eastside or the City of Victoria,” Kendall said.
Kendall has formed a company that intends to produce an affordable domestic supply of legal, injectable heroin for treatment. He says increasing the safe supply is key to saving lives across the province.
“Nearly 90 per cent cent of people stay on it for a year, at least. And their health goes up. Their usage of illegal drugs goes down. Their engagement in criminal activity or the sex trade goes way down. By every measure, they are improved,” Kendall said.
Dr. Bernie Pauly with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research said it’s time for alternatives to save lives.
“When people are accessing drugs from the illegal market, there is no regulatory or safety kind of measures. There are additives, or the drugs may be stronger, or not as strong as the person is anticipating,” Dr. Pauly said.