Canadian senator and former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell says he wants the federal and provincial governments to allow free opioid prescriptions for people with addictions in an effort to stem the West Coast’s fentanyl crisis.
There were 914 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the BC Coroners Service, with fentanyl detected in 60 per cent of them. With thousands more overdoses occurring in the province, particularly in Vancouver, authorities are searching for ways to keep drug users alive.
Campbell, who served as Vancouver’s mayor after serving as BC chief coroner and working in the RCMP’s drug force squad, says the federal government should use evidence from recent clinical trials that prove making opioids available as prescriptions is successful in treating addicts and getting them into recovery.
It’s an idea that is already in use in a very small pilot program at the Downtown Eastside’s Crosstown Clinic – the only clinic in North America to treat addicted patients with medical-grade heroin and hydromorphone.
Patients attend the clinic up to three times a day for their dose of the drug that has been carefully attuned to their needs. The clinic also provides psychological counselling and other support.
Providence Health Care, which operates Crosstown, says the clinic costs about $25,000 per patient per year, but saves society money in the long run. It adds that each illicit drug user costs taxpayers $45,000 per year in healthcare, criminal justice, policing and other costs.
The clinic says it currently works with 130 patients with another 500 people on the waitlist.
Campbell’s plan would expand the availability of clinics like Crosstown through a federal exception for medical-grade opioids.
“We need a recognition that doctors can prescribe these opioids within a clinic,” Campbell told Global News.
It’s the federal health minister’s job to grant these exceptions, Campbell says, but he’s hopeful Minister Jane Philpott can make it happen.
“The health minister that we have now, to be blunt, is the best health minister that I’ve ever seen in all of time,” he said. “She’s very progressive and she wants to keep people alive, and she wants to treat this on a scientific medical basis.”
Vancouver city councillor and professor of psychiatry at UBC Kerry Jang is on board with Campbell.
“I am 100 per cent in favour of prescription opioids,” Jang said. “This has been done in Europe, it’s worked extremely well, and in fact there is very little in terms of any overdose crisis in Europe right now – only in North America.”
Jang says the current federal system is extremely slow and burdened by red tape when dealing with issues like drug exceptions, and when exceptions are made, doctors must apply for special permits which also takes too long.
If and when the federal government does make it legal for opioids to be prescribed to people with addictions, Jang says the province needs to then provide those drugs and cover them under medicare.
“Portugal did that and they don’t have any problems,” Jang said.
Also on the side of Campbell and Jang is another former Vancouver mayor, Sam Sullivan, currently serving as provincial MLA for Vancouver-False Creek.
“I believe in a strict regulation system that it could really reduce organized crime, could reduce all the levels of prostitution and petty crime that happens, and a lot of tragic deaths that happen could be avoided,” Sullivan told Global News.
He says that with almost 1,000 illicit drug deaths in 2016, it’s time to try new methods in handling the crisis.
On the frontline of the issue is Sarah Blythe, who works as a manager for the Downtown Eastside Markets and is an outspoken advocate for supervised injection sites and drug legalization. She talks to drug users daily about the overdose crisis and says everyone involved is “very stressed.”
“It’s becoming extremely shameful that we haven’t taken immediate action to help these folks at least in the interim,” she said.
At the overdose prevention unit she volunteers in, they see over 300 people a day and have witnessed multiple overdoses, but so far no deaths.
If the federal government wants to allow prescription opioids, Blythe says the community is prepared “to start tomorrow.”
“If we could have doctors giving prescriptions to people that came in so that they didn’t have to overdose in the first place, we’re prepared to do that right now,” she said.
She echoes the urgent need for the federal government to “step up and do something” so people with addictions don’t have to resort to crime and street drugs.
Campbell says he’s ready to use his platform on the Senate to stand up for a crisis intervention.
“I just want it treated like the disease that it is,” he said.
–With files from Tanya Beja