British Columbia

B.C. releases plan to provide safe supply of drugs during COVID-19 pandemic

The B.C. government says safe prescription drugs will be provided to people who use substances amid fears the illegal drug supply is becoming increasingly toxic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Substance users will be able to access virtual prescriptions and home delivery of safe drugs

A man prepares a drug in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver on Wednesday. There are concerns the illegal drug supply will become more contaminated as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The provincial government says safe prescription drugs will be provided to people who use substances amid fears the illegal drug supply is becoming increasingly toxic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy announced new guidelines for prescribers to provide medications to patients, including home delivery and giving prescriptions through virtual visits.

"It will ensure that less people turn to the poisoned drug supply and it will ensure that less people have to venture out to pharmacies regularly and still put themselves at risk and put the community at risk," said Judy Darcy.

British Columbia currently faces two public health emergencies: one related to the rapid spread of COVID-19, the other the ongoing opioid overdose crisis declared an emergency in 2016.

The enforcing of social distancing measures and restrictions placed on travel across the U.S.-Canada border have raised concerns about the possibility of the illegal drug supply being cut off and putting people with addictions at risk of developing serious symptoms of withdrawal.

"As the effects of the pandemic continue to unfold, the illicit drug supply is likely to become significantly more adulterated and toxic," Cheyenne Johnson, co-interim executive director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said in a provincial news release. 

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said the drugs that will be available are meant to ease withdrawal and stabilize the life of the user. (Darly Dyck/Canadian Press)

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry expressed her support for the move, saying it would ensure that people are "able to comply with our public health advice around isolation or quarantine."

According to Henry, the drugs people receive will be based on their needs. She said regulated pharmaceutical alternatives, such as hydromorphone, will be provided to opioid dependents. Alcohol and cannabis will also be made available.

Henry said the substances will be distributed by practitioners working in the area in partnership with pharmacists. 

"It won't be a free-for-all. It will be a way of supporting people who have the need right now," Henry said on CBC's The Early Edition on Friday.

Costs covered by provincial PharmaCare

With the new provincial guidelines, people who use substances can meet with their general practitioner or nurse practitioner to access safe prescription drugs. Others can contact a rapid access addiction clinic for an assessment.

Those eligible to access the safe supply under provincial guidelines include:

  • People at risk of COVID-19 infection or who are suspected of being infected.
  • People with a history of ongoing active substance use.
  • People at high risk of withdrawal, overdose, craving or other harms related to drug use.
  • Youth under the age of 19 who provide informed consent and receive additional education.

The costs of providing this safe supply will be covered by provincial PharmaCare.

The safe supply plan was developed by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and a provincial working group of addiction medicine clinicians and people with lived and living experience. 

Darcy says it is not meant to provide people with drugs that can lead to intoxication.

"These are medications that ease the symptoms of withdrawal that allow people to stabilize their lives, that allow people to rebuild their health."

Crowds of people are pictured in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The provincial plan also advises patients who are isolating on best practices to prevent overdoses such as safer drug use, buddying up while maintaining a two-metre separation and carrying a naloxone kit.

Darcy says the ministry began working on the guidelines as soon as the federal government announced exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act last week.

Mayor praises safe supply

On Thursday morning, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart thanked the federal and provincial governments for working toward a safe supply.

"We must tackle the poisoned drug epidemic — something that has already cost us more than 1,000 lives," Stewart said during a news conference where measures were announced to help keep residents of the Downtown Eastside from contracting or spreading COVID-19.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart lauded the plan. (CBC)

Darcy didn't say how the guidelines could change in the future as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.

"We've been pushing the envelope on our response to the overdose crisis from the beginning," she said. "We have a laser focus on what's in front of us right now which is key to keeping people safe."

With files from Bridgette Watson

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