B.C. is the first province in the country to introduce clinical guidance for health-care providers to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade controlled substances to illicit drug users.
The measure, announced in late March, is intended as an emergency stopgap amid two public health emergencies in B.C.: the opioid overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Daryl Meyers, executive director of Pathways Addictions Resource Centre in Penticton, B.C., says none of their clients are being prescribed their drugs.
“We know that in Penticton, the majority of overdoses here are young men living alone and those people would be great candidates for having a clean drug supply,” said Meyers.
Meyers added that the roll out occurred at the start of the pandemic, when doctors and nurse practitioners shifted to seeing patients virtually.
“We are not seeing a lot of prescribers who are having face-to-face contact with their clients, so it would be really helpful if there was an opportunity to be able to connect face-to-face with clients to discuss safe drug supply,” Meyers said.
Dr. Silvina Mema, medical health officer with the Interior Health Authority (IHA), told Global News that about “a dozen” physicians are involved with prescribed supply, and that the health authority is recruiting more health care professionals to take part.
“Those guidelines allow or encourage physicians to prescribe opioids and stimulants and even alcohol in the environment of isolation when movement is restricted,” Mema said.
“Some physicians may not be comfortable prescribing, we need to understand that this is not a treatment, this really is a bridge to allow people to prevent harm from withdrawal.”
Mema said Interior Health would like to improve access to a clean supply of drugs in smaller and more remote communities in the region.
After two years of a slow but steady decline in drug overdose fatalities, numbers are on the rise across the province.
Data released by the B.C. Coroners Service shows that in March the province recorded its highest number of overdose fatalities in a year: 113, including 17 in the B.C. Interior.
Paramedics are also responding to more non-fatal overdoses in the Okanagan region, as every larger centre sees an increase in calls.
Meyers said more people are using drugs alone at home, services have been disrupted and global supply chains altered amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The supply of drugs has changed,” said Meyers. “Travel has been restricted and airlines has been restricted and cross-border has been restricted, so when people are using drugs, they will look for whatever drugs are available.”
“We have seen a huge spike in the increase of crystal meth, that may be because it’s easier to get, but then the crystal meth has also been spiked with fentanyl.”
Judy Darcy, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, says the province is responding, in part, by releasing a free app for people who use drugs alone. It contacts 911 if the user doesn’t disable an alarm.
As for the expansion of ‘safe supply,’ Darcy said the BC Centre of Substance Use offers training on the guidelines and an addictions specialist is available 24/7 to answer questions from health care providers.
“It is certainly available to all prescribers across the province, it has been slower in some areas than others,” said Darcy.
“The most significant increase has been in the Vancouver area, but we are working closely with health authorities, we are working closely with doctors and nurse practitioners and with pharmacists so that these guidelines are well understood across the province.”
B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the overdose crisis more than four years ago. For Meyers, expanded access to ‘safe supply’ can’t come soon enough to communities like Penticton.
“We believe that that is probably going to be the only way to solve the opioid crisis,” she said.