A nurse and safe supply advocate in B.C. says the provincial government’s safe supply program is failing to meet the needs of users whose lives are at risk from toxic drugs.
Corey Ranger, clinical nurse lead for the Victoria SAFER Initiative at AVI Health and Community Services, said the prescription-based program — the first of its kind in Canada — is “largely inaccessible and mostly ineffective.”
“Most of the people who have been on those types of programs have reported lots of difficulty accessing a prescriber, lots of prescriber gatekeeping,” he told Global News.
“Not being trusted with take-home doses, being required to go the pharmacy every single day, doses being inadequate, not in the right formulation, not consumable and the preferred route of consumption.”
It’s been more than five years since B.C. declared a public health emergency due to an unprecedented rise in opioid-related overdose deaths. More than 2,220 people died from toxic drugs in B.C. 2021 — the worst year on record.
According to Sheila Malcomson, B.C. minister of mental health and addictions, 12,000 people have been prescribed safe drugs in the two years since the province launched its program.
The province, she said Wednesday, is “hitting the overdose crisis with everything we’ve got.”
“Safe supply is something that B.C. is working on as a way to combat the toxic drug crisis in combination with all the other efforts we’re making,” she said, “building out hundreds of new treatment beds, standing up new supervised consumption sites, pushing out medication-assisted treatment, including using nurse prescribers … applying for decriminalization, combatting stigma.”
Last year’s budget, she added, committed $430 million to fighting the overdose crisis over a three-year period, with $22.6 million specifically targeted to prescribing safe supply. In addition, Robsinson said health authorities across the province have been directed to add safe supply to their programs.
Ranger, also president for the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, said it’s “wonderful” the ministry is willing to point out previous investments, but its newest budget “had no mention of safe supply or harm reduction.”
“The proof is in the fact that there currently is no safe supply available to people,” he explained. “So whatever they did with that first round of funding, it obviously hasn’t been effective.
“My program is funded through the federal government — we’re offering safe supply to people — but we’re wondering where all this provincial money went and where are the outcomes?”
Despite the province’s efforts, Ranger added, safe supply access through provincial programs remains poor or impossible in rural communities, and programs like his are still “mired with capacity issues.”
Karen Ward, a consultant for drug policy and poverty reduction for the City of Vancouver, agreed with Ranger.
She said the “poisoning emergency” is out of control, with substances including veterinary tranquilizers and benzodiazepines, appearing regularly in the unregulated drug supply in all substances for sale.
The province, she added, is not acting with urgency reflective of the crisis.
“This government, it lacks the will, the courage to even try,” Ward said. “It has a majority — how pathetic is this? That’s just unacceptable to me … we’re really out of cards to play here.”
Ward said the province’s approach to cracking down on the toxic drug supply is “moralistic at worst” and “arbitrary” at best as it continues to distinguish between people’s drug of choice, be it cannabis, wine, beer or heroin.
“It’s not rocket surgery. Here’s a bar, here’s a drug bar. Let’s do it that way,” she said. “We could regulate if we wanted to regulate.”
— With files from Emad Agahi