Critics are raising concerns that drugs from Vancouver’s groundbreaking safe-supply narcotic vending machines could be ending up in the hands of youth.
The first machine of its kind was rolled out in Vancouver in 2019 as a part of a pilot project.
The MySafe machines are meant to provide people with addiction access to a safer drug alternative without fear, shame or stigma. Participants in the program are assessed by a doctor
But some people working in the recovery sector say kids aged 16 and 17 are getting their hands on the product coming out of the machines.
“Their friends and them are accessing safe supply because they want to use it recreationally and they know, relatively, that it’s safer than the alternative,” Jessica Cooksey, director of operations with the Last Door Recovery Centre, told Global News.
“They’ve specifically mentioned taking transit downtown and purchasing.”
The process is what academics call “diversion.”
People with prescriptions to get the safe-supply drugs from the machines then sell them for cash, often to buy other drugs, food or necessities.
BC Liberal mental health and addictions critic Elenore Sturko said the safe supply system needs better management.
“There needs to be oversight so that any drugs that are being publicly funded and supplied, addictive drugs, that there are safety measures in place and other ways of having that supervised to make sure they’re not falling into the wrong hands,” she said.
Staff at the Last Door Recovery Centre say supports must be increased to prevent diversion of substances to youth.
“It’s good people know how to access a safe supply, but it also exposes people to have access that wouldn’t necessarily have readily access,” she said.
In a statement to Global News, MySafe said it operates three machines in Vancouver – one downtown and two in the Downtown Eastside – and currently serves about 90 people. There is also a fourth machine in Victoria serving about 30 people, according to the organization.
“Participants consent to having their prescriptions accessed through this secure dispensing storage machine, equivalent to an individualized storage locker,” the company said. “Selected participants will undergo a full medical and social assessment which includes current drug use patterns and their risk of overdose. They will be assigned a lane in a machine and have their palm scanned for a biometric hand profile that will allow them access. Dilaudid tablets per day are dispensed in a regulated schedule.”
MySafe said it has seen some dramatic changes in people’s lives due to this program and participants are carefully screened and selected. In addition follow-up interviews and urine tests are conducted.
“We cannot say 100% that there has never been diversion to another person as this is the very nature of the unregulated drug market. From what we have observed, any diversion is to a friend or partner who is drug sick,” the statement continued.
“Prescription diversion goes way beyond the scope of MySafe. With prescriptions and street drugs, the origin of the current supply is highly variable and unregulated. Unless the person received it from the doctor or pharmacy, the current death rate shows that anything can end up in the poisoned supply. This has increased the need to get all drugs tested that come from anywhere other than those legitimate sources.”
MySafe said just like any pharmacy, pick-up or in-house delivery of safe supply, staff cannot 100 per cent guarantee what the participants do.
“Regular check-ins have never indicated any cases reported to any staff or peers or clients of youth diversion.
“We want young people to thrive and live long happy safe lives and have opportunities. We need to ask ourselves the bigger picture here and acknowledge why and what youth are doing to not die from the toxic drug supply. It is becoming clearer that young people need support and safer access too. MySafe is not a program intended for youth, and we must all work together to improve education to youth about drugs and addiction.”
In a statement, Health Canada said it takes reports about the diversion of controlled substances “very seriously.”
“Health care professionals, including those operating safer supply services, must follow federal laws and regulations around the secure handling of controlled substances, including measures to help prevent diversion,” it said.
“Health Canada has contacted the organization in question, and has been informed that their protocols for patient screening and measures to help prevent diversion are being followed.”
The concerns come just days before British Columbia is set to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of drugs.
Starting Jan. 31, adults found to be in possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs will not be arrested or charged, a process meant to prevent drug users from getting caught in a cycle of criminalization and incarceration.
Police will instead offer drug users information on available health and social supports, and offer referrals to treatment when requested.
The decriminalization comes under a three-year exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.