B.C. 'safe supply' pilot aims to help entrenched addicts avoid overdoses, says advocate

Fifty people who use street drugs will be regularly prescribed opioid pills to crush up and inject, as part of a new "safe supply" program launching in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Can the initiative help entrenched addicts avoid overdoses?

50 patients will receive the opioid as part of a program aimed at preventing overdoses and deaths

A Vancouver-based program run by the Portland Housing Society and will provide free hydromorphone pills to patients. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)
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A new program that will supply safe opioids to "entrenched addicts" is a step toward ending the opioid crisis' death toll driven by tainted drugs, according to one advocate.

Fifty people who use street drugs will be regularly prescribed opioid pills to crush up and inject, as part of a new "safe supply" program launching in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"It's a small, but I hope seismic shift in the approach that's beginning to recognize the urgency in dealing with the crisis in Canada is about the supply," Don MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"I think the urgency is around replacing the deadly supply, and at the same time engaging people in health services."

The program is run by the Portland Housing Society (PHS) and will provide free hydromorphone pills, also known as Dilaudid, to its patients to either take orally or crush and inject. Clients will be able to visit the site up to five times per day. 

Coco Culbertson, who is overseeing the program for PHS, told CBC News that dosages will be prescribed by a physician and injected under the supervision of PHS staff and volunteers

Not everyone thinks giving free hydomorphone pills to opioid addicts is a good thing. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The pilot project is aimed at preventing overdoses and death in a community hit hard by the opioid crisis.

Nationally, there have been more than 9,000 opioid related deaths between January 2016 and June 2018.

Meanwhile, not everyone thinks Vancouver's new "safe supply" drug program is a good thing.

"It is very inexpensive to keep a patient addicted on opioids and make sure they don't cause any problems," said Dr. Jeremy Devine, a physician in the psychiatry program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

"It sort of gets the job done per se, in that these individuals are no longer a societal problem. At what cost? What has been lost? Am I going to keep you dependant on opioids for the rest of your life?"

However, MacPherson argued the program is necessary, given the rising death toll.

"You can't provide health care services or addiction treatment services to people who aren't alive anymore," he said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


With files from CBC News. Produced by Rafferty Baker, Anne Penman, Samira Mohyeddin.