Ottawa·Updated

OPH asks to take part in 'safe' opioid program

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is hoping to take part in a Health Canada pilot program that would provide safer drugs to high-risk users in an effort to protect them from drugs laced with fentanyl. 

Giving free Dilaudid to some users supported by health board, deputy police chief

Advocates believe Health Canada's 'safe supply' program will help prevent accidental opioid-related deaths. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is hoping to take part in a Health Canada pilot program that would provide safer drugs to high-risk users in an effort to protect them from drugs laced with fentanyl. 

It now has the support of the city's health board and a deputy police chief.

In September, the Canadian Medical Association Journal recommended the approach as a way of preventing accidental opioid deaths.

"We want to be able to prevent the overdose[s] from happening in the first place," Mark Barnes, owner and pharmacy manager of Vanier's Respect Rx Pharmasave, told Ottawa Morning's Robyn Bresnahan on Monday.

Barnes, who has been on the front lines of the opioid crisis for years, is working with OPH and several other community health partners on a joint application to become part of the "safe supply" program.

Under the program, high-risk opioid users would get free Dilaudid pills directly from a medical professional and use them at a supervised consumption site.

Death toll rising

In 2018, 82 people died from accidental opioid overdoses in Ottawa, up from 64 in 2017 and 40 in 2016. Fentanyl was the culprit in a majority of the deaths.

In September, Ottawa Inner City Health, Respect Rx Pharmasave and local physicians started approximately 30 clients on their own "safer supply" pilot.

The overall wellness of the person is better.- Mark Barnes, Respect Rx Pharmasave

"The overall wellness of the person is better," Barnes said.

"They can spend less time worrying about seeking the drug, using the drug, being safe from people where they get the drug, and instead thinking about themselves and making themselves better." 

For example, Barnes said one client has started seeking housing for the first time in five years.

"She would never qualify before because she would never seem stable enough to be able to pay rent and live in independent housing," he said. 

"For her, it changed her life forever." 

'We want to be able to prevent the overdose from happening in the first place,' said Mark Barnes, whose Vanier pharmacy is among the applicants hoping to take part in the four-year pilot. (Sonja Koenig/CBC)

Controversial approach

However, the idea of the government giving out free drugs to people with addiction issues isn't without its critics.

In a recent article in Policy Options, psychiatry resident Jeremy Devine argued the program could unintentionally create "a mental prison of perpetual, state-sponsored drug use … [that is] even more insidious because it purports to offer treatment while keeping patients trapped in their addiction."

Why Ottawa Public Health is applying to start a 'safer supply' program. 8:39

But Barnes said treatment is not the primary goal of the program.

"What we are ultimately trying to do is reverse time back to a safer time for people on the streets who have to use opioids to survive," he said.

"We are not talking about treatment, however, we hope and we really believe that there will be an uptake of treatment."

Deputy chief on board

On Monday night, the Ottawa Board of Health formally supported OPH's bid. 

Afterwards, one of Ottawa's deputy chiefs of police told CBC News he's in favour of the project, saying the overwhelming majority of drugs on the street in the community contain some level of fentanyl. 

"The fact that people are using opioids, and that we know they're using a toxic, deadly, drug source, means we have a responsibility as a community to actually try to address that," said Steve Bell.

If approved, the program would start in January and last four years, and according to Barnes could help as many as 500 people. 

Health Canada is expected to announce approvals next month.