Expand safe supply options for people who use drugs, Ontario advocates say

Drug strategy groups across Ontario are writing to the provincial and federal health ministers to ask for more safe supply initiatives to help save the lives of people who use drugs.

'We can't get the attention and the response we need now,' Guelph's Adrienne Crowder says

Advocates say a safe drug supply would give people who use drugs prescriptions for opioids that are a certain dosage and the quality of the medication would be known, unlike drugs bought off the street which can include other substances. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

All levels of government responded quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, and harm reduction advocates are wondering why the same hasn't happened for the opioid crisis.

"It has been so frustrating and I have often had very intense anger because there are people literally dying in our community and we can't get the attention and the response we need now," said Adrienne Crowder, manager of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy.

"One of the things the pandemic is showing is [the different levels of government] can act together when they need to and they can do so pretty quickly when they need to," Crowder added. "I've been beside myself because of the inability to capture the attention of the decision makers."

New numbers from Ontario's chief coroner shows there has been a 35 per cent increase in drug-related deaths between March and July of this year over the same time period in 2019.

Now, the Municipal Drug Strategy Co-ordinators Network of Ontario is hoping to get the attention of politicians at the provincial and federal levels in a new campaign to support a safe supply of drugs for people who use them. 

There are 30 groups that make up the network and they've written to health ministers at both levels asking for funding and support for safe supply initiatives. That includes adding hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine to the Ontario Drug Benefit Formulary.

The letters are being sent ahead of Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

People need proper health care

Dr. Andrea Sereda, a physician at London InterCommunity Health Centre and a spokesperson for the Emergency Safer Supply Program, says there has been a grassroots level movement for safe supply over the last four years.

She says Ontario has been a leader in safe supply, with large programs in Toronto, Ottawa and London.

In London, there's been a safe supply program in place for almost five years, she said. The aim is to replace illicit, contaminated fentanyl people buy on the streets with a prescription for opioids with a known dose and known purity, she said.

"People who choose to continue to use drugs have a safe alternative, so they're not dying of all the complications of overdose and infection that we're seeing with fentanyl," Sereda said.

She says it seems there's pushback to the idea of expanding safe supply because people who use drugs are seen by some as "less than, compared to the rest of us."

She says the opioid crisis is a health care issue and needs to be treated that way.

"In terms of a provincial or federal response, they really do need to examine whether they're providing a universal health care for every single citizen in Canada," she said.

Dr. Andrea Sereda of London Intercommunity Health Centre runs the Safer Supply program. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Overdose deaths rise in Guelph

Crowder says the number of overdose deaths have doubled in Guelph. In 2019 there were seven deaths. This year so far, there have been 15.

Cole Davidson, press secretary for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, said in a statement to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo that the minister has received letters calling for safe supply initiatives.

"As we fight the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot forget the opioid overdose crisis has exacted a heavy toll on thousands of families in communities throughout the country. This crisis, now intensified by the pandemic, continues to be one of the most serious public health threats in Canada's recent history," Davidson said.

"Working with other orders of government, substance use experts, service providers, first responders, law enforcement and people with lived and living experience, our government remains committed to advancing evidence-based responses to help reverse the trend of opioid overdose deaths and other substance-related harms in Canada."

Staff with the Ontario Ministry of Health say the ministry is "actively monitoring the impact of the pandemic on the opioid crisis."

"At this time, the ministry has not approved safer supply initiatives," an email from staff said, although it did note the province has provided $12 million for mental health and addictions services and $31 million is going toward consumption and treatment services sites.

The ministry has received the letters from the drug strategy groups and "is considering these requests within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ministry's broader opioid crisis response."

Listen to the interview on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition: