New Brunswick

Doctor suggests giving opioid users legal drugs

An Ontario family doctor who says opioid users should be given access to their drug of choice is coming to New Brunswick later this month.

Andrea Sereda coming to New Brunswick to report on program that provides drugs to high-risk users

Dr. Andrea Sereda says none of the opioid users at the program run by London Intercommunity Health Centre have died. (CBC)

An Ontario family doctor who says opioid users should be given access to their drug of choice will make her case in New Brunswick later this month.

Andrea Sereda works at the London Intercommunity Health Centre, where she runs a program that prescribes pharmaceutical grade opioids to high-risk people who had been getting their drugs on the street.

The program was launched four years ago with a handful of drug users following a spike in deaths.

"Quite honestly, we were seeing people die, seeing people die of overdose, and seeing people die of infectious complications of the street drug supply," said Sereda.

Pills provided daily

Today 119 people take part in the program, which has been dubbed Safer Supply.

They are prescribed drugs like Dilaudid, which they pick up daily in pill form, meeting with Sereda once a week to discuss their use.

They also have access to social workers, psychiatrists, nurses and outreach workers employed through the centre.

About three-quarters of the participants crush the pills and inject the drug.

Sereda said the program is working extremely well.

Despite a steady increase in opioid overdose deaths across the country — there were 937 in Ontario alone last year —  no one in the London program has died.

Sereda will be in Saint John speaking at the third annual Harm Reduction Symposium on March 28. 

New Brunswick has largely avoided the levels of opioid overdose deaths seen in much of the rest of Canada over the past several years.

Opioid deaths across Canada in 2019. (Health Canada)

A total of 10 were recorded in the province in 2019.

But a recent warning from city police may be a sign things are about to change.

On Thursday, police issued a public notice about new pills that have appeared in the city. Lab tests revealed the drug is isotonitazene, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that can be dangerous, even to someone who simply handles it.

The notice said the drug's potency resembles that of fentanyl.

Saint John emergency doctor Tracy Meyer said that until now, the vast majority of the supply available on the street has been prescription pills like Dilaudid, which means users know what they are getting and can be sure of the dose. 

The new drug is a sign a big city problem has now arrived. 

"We knew that it might be developing in future, and I think it's now on our doorstep unfortunately," said Meyer. 

New street drugs increase risk

Meyer also runs an opioid therapy clinic for drug users who want to stop. For the most part they are prescribed substitute narcotics such as suboxone or methadone.

But a significant population of opioid drug users aren't ready to give up the high.

And for those people, a new supply of street drugs of unknown doses and quality is a serious problem for drug users.

"Those are the people that are going to be at significant risk of overdose," she said.

"A few of us have discussed moving more toward safe supply if that becomes an issue. It might be something we're going to have to consider." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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