British Columbia

Vancouver's chief medical officer recommends compassion club model to reduce illicit drug deaths

Dr. Patricia Daly took her recommendations to city hall this week while updating councillors and staff on the province's second public health crisis, for which there is no vaccine.

Dr. Patricia Daly takes recommendations to city hall, reminds councillors opioid crisis still raging

Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly speaks to media in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver's head doctor said more headway needs to be made on the opioid crisis in British Columbia and one way to stop people from dying sooner rather than later is to move toward a compassion club model for distributing safe drugs in the city.

Patricia Daly, the chief medical officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, made the recommendation to Vancouver City Council on Thursday during a presentation on the current illicit drug death situation.

Daly said she spoke to city policy makers to reiterate the province is still battling a public health emergency other than COVID-19 — one that has killed 3,000 people between January 2020 and July 2021, compared to 1,800 who died from the novel coronavirus in the same period.

"It was a reminder that we need to address this other public health crisis," said Daly, speaking Friday on CBC's The Early Edition.

She said while the city and the province have made some investments in addiction treatment services since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, two critical pieces of the solution puzzle are missing — a regulated legal source of drugs to replace the contaminated illegal drug supply, and more focus on preventing substance use disorder.

"We need one of the models that's been put forward by people with lived experiences, a compassion club model, and that's where I think we need to be moving now," said Daly.

Such a model would allow organizations like the the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) to open a safe supply fulfilment centre and hand out clean tested drugs.

City hall in agreement

On this point, Daly and city hall agree.

Earlier this month, Vancouver City Council voted to support a federal application that would allow a compassion club model and provide tested drugs in the city.

The application was put forward by DULF, which had previously handed out tested drugs in front of the Vancouver Police Department. If the federal exemption is granted, DULF would work with organizations like Fair Price Pharma to obtain, test and package legally-sourced drugs before handing them out. 

Daly said the decision to greenlight compassion club models must come from the federal government and she would like to see that happen.

 "As long as the federal drug laws make these substances illegal, it is going to be very, very challenging to provide people with alternatives except through things like a prescription market," she said.

Quick implementation possible

Daly said while legalizing all substances is a major initiative that would take the federal government a "significant period of time," if Ottawa grants an exemption for a compassion club now, it could be operational right away and B.C. health officials could evaluate it as it goes.

"If we find that that it is of benefit — we would certainly look for risks as well as benefits — then it could be something that would mean much more easily scalable," she explained.

"The compassion club is something that we really need to keep talking about and supporting, and hopefully we can implement as quickly as possible."

Daly said the other part of the puzzle, helping those in duress before they die, is crucial right now as a result of the pandemic, which she said has resulted in serious mental health challenges for many young people.

"More substance use among people may actually drive problems in the future if we don't address this," said Daly.

Opioid deaths in BC have far outpaced deaths from COVID-19... But what can be done about it? We hear from the Chief Medical Health Officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, and learn more about her presentation to Vancouver City Council yesterday.

With files from The Early Edition and Akshay Kulkarni