Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Auditor General Michael Pickup presents his report about the province's toxic drug crisis and the implementation of harm reduction programs during an announcement in the press theatre at the legislature in Victoria on March 19.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s New Democratic Party government is on the defensive about the growing certainty that some opioids prescribed under its “safer supply” program are being diverted into the illicit drug trade.

In late February, Campbell River RCMP announced that they had raided what they described as a well organized drug-trafficking operation. Amid large quantities of illicit drugs, officers found more than 3,500 dilaudid (hydromorphone) pills, along with evidence suggesting the pills had been diverted. The main clue was the presence of prescription bottles used in the program that supplies opioids uncontaminated by fentanyl to thousands of people with addictions.

A week later, Prince George RCMP issued a news release saying organized crime groups are increasingly involved in redistributing opioids prescribed under the program, and other prescription drugs. Some of them are being resold outside of B.C. – a point that drew the attention of Alberta’s Premier. The Mounties seized more than 10,000 prescription drug pills in one raid, and thousands more in another. The detachment’s superintendent said he believes that potentially half of those pills came from the safer-supply program. (Once again, the evidence is in the packaging and has yet to be confirmed through chemical analysis.)

Prescribing pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs is regarded by public-health officials as a lifesaving option for people with severe opioid addiction. At the start of the pandemic, the province allowed users to leave with those pills, rather than take them in a supervised setting. That temporary measure has continued, opening the door to diversion.

It’s unclear, though, how many dilaudid pills are being dispensed to the roughly 3,700 patients who are getting prescribed opioids, because the province won’t disclose those numbers. If it provided one dozen pills per day to each patient, that would add up to more than 1.3-million pills being handed out each month without supervised consumption.

When such drugs are diverted to people who would not otherwise use opioids, the program is causing harm. Only 15 per cent of hydromorphone prescriptions in B.C. are related to the program, but police seizures of hydromorphone have spiked in the province since it started.

The gatekeeping of data around this program will not help build public trust, and the province would do well to heed the advice of B.C. Auditor General Michael Pickup, whose new report on the program calls for transparency and accountability.

In his March 19 report, Mr. Pickup said the government has internal data that it is not sharing with the public on its prescribed-opioid program, and that even its health-system partners and some health authorities believe that communication by the ministries about the program – specifically about diversion – has been weak.

It was political pressure on the other side of this polarized topic that triggered the provincial government’s evasive maneuvers.

The B.C. United opposition party, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre all piled on the NDP government after police reported that large numbers of government-supplied opioids are ending up in the hands of organized crime.

In response, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth assured the public that there is no evidence of widespread diversion of opioids that were prescribed as alternatives to tainted street drugs. Mere hours after he spoke with RCMP brass about the matter, the Mounties’ assistant commissioner in B.C., John Brewer, issued a public statement saying the issue of diversion is overblown: Confirmed prescribed pharmaceutical alternatives present in drug seizures are in the minority, he said.

A drug bust of 3,500 opioid pills in Campbell River – a city with a population of 35,000 – may not meet the minister’s definition of a significant issue, but there is a problem with diversion and the province should act on it.

The NDP needs to embrace oversight of the program – going back to witnessed consumption is an obvious possible solution – and it must plainly lay out the clinical benefits and risks of prescribed pharmaceutical alternatives. Anything short of that threatens the viability of this harm-reduction initiative.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe