Regulations sought to prevent OD deaths
The chief medical health officer of Vancouver Coastal Health is calling for the urgent regulation of illicit drugs so substances could be sold or provided for free to those at high risk of overdose through a framework similar to policies on marijuana, alcohol and tobacco.
Dr. Patricia Daly said limits on who could access the drugs, with penalties for anyone trying to sell them to minors, would be part of a proposed regime to prevent overdose deaths of people who are accessing street drugs often containing the deadly opioid fentanyl.
“We have the highest overdose death rate of any jurisdiction in Canada and we have also implemented more services to address the crisis than any jurisdiction so we believe we’ve done all the things we can do apart from regulating the illegal drug supply,” she said Friday as she released a report with 21 recommendations on dealing with the overdose crisis.
Users of regulated illicit drugs would need to be assessed by a doctor to determine if they could overdose and to deter people who may want to experiment with drugs, Daly said, adding the Vancouver Coastal region is “cutting edge” with programs aimed at preventing fatal overdoses, such as naloxone distribution programs and overdose prevention sites.
A unique pilot project provides pharmaceutical-grade pills of the opioid hydromorphone to users who ingest them or crush them to inject under supervision as a substitute for heroin after failing other forms of treatment.
“This is the first pilot of a regulated supply and that’s being funded by our provincial government,” she said. “I think we will see the federal government funding other pilots as we’re making progress with all levels of government.”
Dr. Christy Sutherland, who runs the “very successful” program, said about 60 people are currently using hydromorphone.
“There are no plans for it to end. We are working on ongoing expansion,” she said.
Vancouver Coastal Health will be applying to conduct more pilots on a safer drug supply following a call for proposals by the federal government last month, Daly said.
She said decriminalization of possession of drugs for personal use is also a priority but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has maintained the government is not prepared to take that step.
The Vancouver Police Department has long been supportive of a regulated drug supply and instead of arresting drug users refers them to outreach teams and treatment and the fire department will soon be working with Vancouver Coastal to do the same, Daly said.
She said an unregulated drug supply would be recognizing that illicit drug use is not a crime but a health issue that needs to be addressed through innovative approaches because fentanyl is almost always present when drugs are tested for contamination.