Health officials urge Vancouver to distribute safe opioids

Health officials urged Vancouver city council to push the boundaries and provide a safe supply of opioids to addicts to help curb the opioid crisis.

'We can't forget behind these numbers are individuals and families who are affected,' says doctor

Health officials urged the City of Vancouver to provide safe opioids to drug users as another tactic to combat the ongoing health crisis. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

Health officials have urged Vancouver city council to push forward with new strategies to curb the high opioid death rate, including providing a safe supply of drugs to addicts.

Dr. Patricia Daly with Vancouver Coastal Health and Dr. Mark Tyndall with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control made the suggestion during a presentation to council at city hall Wednesday morning.

"We've become so used to this horrible situation," Tyndall said. "We have to do something different."

About 300 people died from drug overdoses in Vancouver last year, with numbers yet to come for the last two months of the year.

Daly said she expects the numbers across the province to top 1,400 once the final tally comes from the B.C. Coroners Service.

Deaths preventable, says doctor

"The deaths are still far too high. These are people who are at the prime of their life — almost all the deaths are between 19 and 59 years of age," Daly said. 

"We can't forget behind these numbers are individuals and families who are affected. Everyone of these deaths is preventable."

Tyndall and Daly were joined by the city's fire chief and the city's managing director of social policy.

Daly said the number of overdose deaths in Vancouver has improved since last April — including numbers from police and hospital emergency departments that suggest that the number of opioid-related deaths didn't increase over the Christmas holiday period.

The previous year, that number rose over the holidays.

The improvement shows that some of the city's current strategies, which include supervised injection sites, Naloxone distribution and addiction treatment, have been helpful.

'We have to do something different'

But Tyndall advised the city to keep on trying new strategies to fight the opioid crisis, including providing safe drugs who need help beyond the current tactics. 

He recently announced plans for a pilot project to give clean opioids, in the form of prescription hydromorphone pills, to at-risk drug users as an alternative to street drugs starting in April.

At council, he explained that some people need the drugs to manage chronic physical pain. Daly added that some use the drugs to mask emotional pain as well.

'We don't have time'

However, Tyndall said the city can't wait for the small study, which will only affect about 200 drug users, to roll out and be published in a peer-reviewed journal in two years. 

"This needs to happen as an emergency situation," he said. "We don't have time to get everybody agreeing on this." 

Tyndall emphasized that hydromorphone is a prescription medication and not an illicit substance like heroin. Currently, prescriptions can't be sold in vending machines.

Daly said Vancouver Coastal Health has $13 million budgeted for this year. Last year, the new NDP provincial government announced it would commit $322 million to the crisis.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said he was tempted to push forward an emergency motion to look into the issue.

Instead, he said council would meet with staff and health officials in the following days. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.