British Columbia

Provincial health officer, chief coroner condemn 'polarizing' rhetoric over B.C.'s safe drug supply

The province launched a prescribed safe supply program in March 2020, and Dr. Bonnie Henry says a program review now underway will be based on data, not divisive politics.

'Facts must take precedence over partisanship,' says Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe

A woman with shoulder-length grey hair stands at a podium.
Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, is pictured at a news conference on Aug. 16, 2022. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

British Columbia health leaders will be reviewing the province's safe supply program and say the review will be based on data, not divisive politics.

The announcement came during a news conference Monday that included Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, Kelsey Louie of the First Nations Health Authority and Jennifer Charlesworth, the B.C. representative for children and youth.

The four presented a united front in support of a safe supply of drugs and their determination to debunk what they called polarizing rhetoric about who is accessing it and its impact on B.C. communities.

"Facts must take precedence over partisanship," said Lapointe.

Two weeks ago, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling on the Liberals to halt safe-supply programs and redirect funding to treatment instead.

"Crime and chaos, drugs and disorder rage in our streets. Nowhere is this worse than in the opioid overdose crisis that has expanded so dramatically in the last several years," Poilievre told the House of Commons on May 18.

A protester holds up a sign that reads 'Every Death is a Drug Policy Failure'.
Moms Stop the Harm advocates and supporters gather in Victoria on Thursday, April 14, 2022, to mark the sixth anniversary of the public health emergency. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

That motion was voted down a week later, with federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett saying Poilievre's criticisms were not based on evidence and Health Canada is not aware of safe supply drugs "flooding the streets" as the Opposition politician had suggested.

Poilievre has said B.C.'s safe supply policies are worsening the overdose crisis because prescription hydromorphone "gets sold to kids'' by those taking part in the program, with the profits used to buy fentanyl.

Lapointe said Monday's event was not in response to any one person, but rather to focus on saving lives and reducing harm and that officials are "closely monitoring, continually, for any and all trends that may impact public safety.''

B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Jennifer Charlesworth, says her office hasn't seen any indication that youth are using drugs "diverted'' from the safe supply program. Charlesworth said Monday she was standing with health officials to say that "polarizing" rhetoric is dangerous.

"When public policy is being driven by fear, by polarized opinions, by anecdotes, it actually causes harm," she said.

Henry says monitoring has not detected an increase in opioid overdoses involving children, although it may be time to re-evaluate the program to ensure safe supply is meeting people's needs as the province emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said part of the review of the safe supply program will involve re-evaluating the distribution of hydromorphone. She says they have heard from front-line physicians that it is not working for everyone.

"It's not the most effective treatment for all individuals," Whiteside told CBC's The Early Edition on Tuesday. 

"We continue to deal with an absolutely unrelenting situation," she added.

Almost 90% of drug deaths involve fentanyl: coroner

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, more than 12,000 people have died of illicit toxic drugs in the province since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016.

Louie said that the supply was far more deadly in 2023 than it was in when the crisis began, and now was the time to do things differently.

Seven years ago, fentanyl was detected in more than half of B.C.'s illicit drug deaths. Now, the coroners service says that number has risen to almost 90 per cent.

"This is not the same emergency as it was in 2016," Louie said.

On average, six people continue to die daily, and it is the leading cause of death for British Columbians between the ages of 10 and 59. Despite pervading stereotypes, Lapointe said only 14 per cent of deaths last year occurred in Vancouver's poorest postal code.

"The Downtown Eastside is not the face of this crisis," said Lapointe.

With files from The Canadian Press