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UBC doctor warns giving users ‘clean’ drugs carries risks of its own

BC CDC proposed drug vending machines
WATCH: The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is proposing drug vending machines as way to deal with the opioid overdose crisis. Grace Ke reports.

A UBC doctor says a pilot project to hand out pure drugs in a bid to curb overdose deaths in British Columbia comes with its own risks.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC) is looking at dispensing hydromorphone pills, better known as dilaudid, to registered users who could take them home and swallow, snort or inject them.

The drug is a pharmaceutical-grade opioid five times as strong as morphine.

READ MORE: BC Centre for Disease Control proposes vending machines for ‘safe drugs’

Potential candidates would be given a card with a daily limit, and could possibly access the drugs through anonymous vending machines at existing addiction or healthcare facilities.

Speaking on CKNW’s The Jill Bennett Show, clinical associate professor Dr. Launette Rieb with UBC’s Department of Family Practice says the approach carries its own dangers.

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“People can still overdose on [hydromorphone]. It’s an unsupervised model,” Rieb said.

“Also, this doesn’t purify the stimulant use supply, which is also tainted with fentanyl. And to hand out stimulants is also a very unproven tactic. So is giving take-home doses to inject.”

READ MORE: Vancouver drug users will now be able to test their drugs for fentanyl

The BC CDC says it hopes to kick off the pilot project in April. Last month, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said, “We look forward to seeing the results of that research.”

Between January and October 2017, more than 1,200 people died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in B.C., with fentanyl detected in about 83 per cent of cases, according to BC Coroners Service data.

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Ancient drug could be key to opioid crisis
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While users could pass the “clean” dilaudid on to other, unregistered users, officials have said that’s not a primary concern as it will still help counter the supply of tainted street drugs.

But Rieb said with evidence showing as many as 80 per cent of heroin users began their addiction through prescription opioids, the program could also add fuel to the fire.

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“By putting medical grade drugs on the street, we already saw what that did when we had very liberal prescribing of hydromorphone and oxycodone and other prescription drugs. It really ramped up the overall addiction issue.”

READ MORE: Grieving B.C. mom prevented from setting up treatment centre in memory of her son, Brandon Jansen

Rieb said while harm reduction is important, the approach fails to address what she calls the underlying cause of overdose deaths: addiction.

“I think that the focus should be to look at some of the innovative treatment strategies that are underutilized or underfunded in British Columbia,” she said.

WATCH: B.C. improves access to drug checking initiatives

Overdose prevention plan
Overdose prevention plan

She pointed to the Portuguese model of decriminalization, in which users are not arrested for possession but are instead given long-term free drug treatment, housing and subsidized job placements.

READ MORE: Free naloxone kits now available at 220 pharmacies throughout B.C.

She also pointed to other drug therapies such as Vivitrol, a once-monthly injection that is slowly released into the body and both helps prevent users from getting high and blocks overdoses.

Rieb said studies have shown no overdoses among users while undergoing treatment with the drug.