Vancouver’s overdose emergency task force wants support from other Canadian cities and the federal government for expanded access across Canada to a safer supply of drugs.
The call comes as Ottawa announces new funding to support safe supply initiatives across the country. Together, they signal a recognition by government of the toxicity of the illicit drug supply and a cautious step toward drug-policy reform.
Jordan Westfall, co-founder of the Canadian Association for Safe Supply, said he was pleased to see government broach the issue.
“It’s a really positive signal that government is starting to understand how dire the situation is, how disturbing it is to have about 4,000 people die over the last few years [in British Columbia] and that we’re desperately in need of some change,” Mr. Westfall said.
The recommendation by Vancouver’s overdose emergency task force is one of several in a report going before council on Tuesday. It proposes that council approve a motion for Mayor Kennedy Stewart to share with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) board of directors meeting taking place in September, advocating for a regulated supply of “opioids or other substances.”
The motion calls on the federal government to “expand access to safe supply by proactively supporting all doctors, health authorities, provinces and all relevant professional colleges, including physicians and surgeons across Canada, to safely provide regulated opioids or other substances through a free and federally available pharmacare program.”
As well, it asks the federal government to declare a national public health emergency and provide the necessary exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow cities to implement safe supply pilot programs.
Providing a safer supply of drugs means offering regulated, quality-controlled substances in place of illicit drugs, which often include toxic additives. In 2018, fentanyl was detected in about 87 per cent of all overdose deaths; other substances such as carfentanil and benzodiazepines have also driven overdoses and overdose deaths.
Current safe supply initiatives available in Vancouver include providing a relatively small group of people with the opioid-use-disorder drug hydromorphone – an opioid medication commonly used in palliative and acute care – or diacetylmorphine, also known as pharmaceutical-grade heroin, to inject under supervision in a medical setting.
Asked Monday about the role that cities play in advocating for drug-policy reform, Mr. Stewart said he has received requests from mayors of other cities “to be a little bit more active on this file,” and that lessons from Vancouver can help advance public understanding elsewhere.
“Perhaps in smaller municipalities, where overdoses are also occurring, perhaps a motion like this, and a debate like this, at the FCM would help change the national dialogue,” he said.
Ottawa has already signalled some receptiveness to expanding safe supply. Last week, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced more than $76-million in new funding to combat the overdose crisis, with $33.6-million of that going to safe supply projects.
Community groups would apply for that funding through the Substance Use and Addictions Program, which was created to support innovative, evidence-informed projects to address problematic substance use.
Ms. Petitpas Taylor said the funding is a direct result of her hearing from front-line service providers.
“We’ve heard time and time again that one of the number one issues that we are grappling with is the issue of a contaminated drug supply,” she said, noting that her government also made regulatory changes last year to make diacetylmorphine available as a treatment option outside of a hospital setting.
Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said it is important that Canada’s Minister of Health is discussing safe supply because it is “an acknowledgment that the toxicity of the illegal drug market is a significant problem.”
Mr. MacPherson said Canada ultimately needs to re-evaluate its approach toward drugs, and acknowledged drug-policy reform is a process.
“The money that’s being allocated is for innovation, it’s for pushing the envelope. And that’s all a good thing,” he said.
“When you have a deadly crisis on your hands, you don’t necessarily start with passing legislation. You start by putting the fire out. And that’s what the safe supply discussion has been all about.”
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