New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

New Brunswick to crack down on misuse of prescription opiates

New Brunswick will start rolling out a prescription drug monitoring program by the end of 2016. But critics are warning it could do more harm than good.

Critics warn drug monitoring could push users to more dangerous drugs

Health Minister Victor Boudreau says drug monitoring will help the province better track who is using what drugs and where the prescriptions are being filled. (CBC)

New Brunswick will start rolling out a prescription drug monitoring program by the end of 2016, more than a decade after the program was promised.

But critics in neighbouring Nova Scotia are raising alarm bells about drug monitoring, suggesting it has pushed addicts to start using dangerous opiates like fentanyl and heroin.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau said all pharmacies in the province will be connected to a drug information database by the end of the year.

"That's the first step toward having a drug monitoring program and making sure that we're able to track who is taking which drugs and from which drugstores are they getting them and from which multiple sites," Boudreau said.

A CBC News investigation into Maritime drug overdose deaths has revealed a picture of the deadly toll of opiate addiction in the region.

Opiates like Dilaudid and OxyContin have been involved in more than 70 per cent of all accidental overdose deaths in the Maritimes dating back to 2008, eclipsing every other class of drug.

A drug monitoring program will give government more control over who is prescribing and filling prescriptions for powerful opiates, Boudreau said.

But he couldn't say what would happen to the countless people in the province who are already addicted to opiates.

When asked what he will do to make sure those people don't turn to heroin or fentanyl, as they have in other jurisdictions, Boudreau said there's "no magic solution."

"It's just trying to gather as much information as we can, making sure that our front-line workers know what to do in situations facing fentanyl and making sure they're well equipped, that they have the tools they need to be able to try to prevent this obviously very nasty drug from spreading and having very serious effects on New Brunswickers and Canadians."

Unfulfilled promises

A new prescription drug monitoring program will soon begin rolling out in New Brunswick. (The Canadian Press)
Boudreau's government is the third one to promise New Brunswickers a prescription monitoring program.

It was promised in the 2007 speech from the throne under the Shawn Graham-led Liberals, after three different coroner's inquests into overdose deaths recommended drug monitoring.

A contract for the program was awarded a year later. A government news release said it would be in place by early 2011.

A year after that deadline was missed, the Progressive Conservatives promised to spend $1.2 million on developing the program.

The promise to develop an electronic drug monitoring system appeared yet again in the 2014 Liberal election platform.

On Monday, Boudreau described drug monitoring as a file that's "in progress."

Drug monitoring under fire in Nova Scotia

Debby Warren, executive director of AIDS Moncton, said drug monitoring must come with better access to addiction treatment. (CBC)
As New Brunswick's drug monitoring program faced delays, Nova Scotia adopted its own program more than 10 years ago.

But some critics say it may be doing more harm than good.

The program, for example, didn't flag a Bridgewater doctor who is accused of prescribing a patient 50,000 powerful painkillers between January 2014 and August 2015 and selling those drugs on the street. Dr. Sarah Jones has pleaded not guilty to running the alleged drug trafficking scheme.

The Jones case prompted a pharmacist who designed Nova Scotia's drug monitoring program to suggest it hasn't been effective and isn't doing what it was designed to do.

More recently, the program has generated criticism from outreach and addiction workers, who say it has created a market for drugs like heroin.

They say drug users have turned to more powerful opiates after painkillers became more difficult and expensive to get.

Debby Warren, the executive director of AIDS Moncton, worries about the same thing could happen in New Brunswick.

"If they don't put treatment programs and supports in place for them, aside from what's currently in place ... we're going to create that issue of the people going in desperation to look for their drugs elsewhere," Warren said in an interview earlier this month.

'I certainly wouldn't commit to anything today'

This bag of fentanyl was seized from the Moncton apartment where Julien Gould and a friend were found dead in 2014. It tested positive for a derivative of fentanyl. (File Photo)
Fentanyl has been involved in at least 15 drug overdose deaths in New Brunswick since 2011.

That number could be higher because the data from the coroner's office is more than a year old.

Experts have suggested the Maritime provinces should start monitoring drug overdoses in real time and publicly releasing that data, so a spate of overdoses could be detected quickly.

British Columbia started doing this after hundreds of people died from overdoses earlier this year, prompting a public health emergency. Many American states do it too.

Boudreau said he is concerned about the rise of fentanyl. But he wouldn't agree to real-time monitoring of overdoses.

"I certainly wouldn't commit to anything today," he said.

"We'll certainly follow best practices that's happening in other parts of the country and do what we can to make sure we're leading edge on this. But we have to make sure we have the technology in place to be able to do so as well."


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