Advocates say it took a pandemic for steps forward in the call for a safe supply of drugs for people dealing with substance use problems and there’s no guarantee progress will continue.
On March 26, the provincial government introduced new clinical guidelines after the federal government announced a number of exemptions that would be made to the Controlled Substances Act. The changes would allow doctors, nurses and pharmacists to prescribe a safe supply of medication to people dealing with substance use disorder in support of social distancing in the face of two public health emergencies.
Corey Ranger, a downtown street nurse, says safe supply is the best step forward in these circumstances. Working with Victoria’s homeless population, Ranger can’t say he’s seen an uptick in overdoses — yet. As borders close and people self-isolate, the illicit drug supply is becoming scarce and Ranger says it’s making the situation on the ground volatile.
“Drugs are being cut with other drugs. There’s a lot of benzos that are being found inside of opiates and naloxone doesn’t work on benzos so it’s producing some different kinds of overdoses, ” he says, adding that the lack of availability is changing people’s tolerance to drugs which can also lead to an overdose.
An open letter addressed to Premier John Horgan, along with a number of ministers, calls for the decriminalization of drugs as the next step forward to mitigating both the COVID-19 pandemic and the overdoses crisis.
Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm — one of the 17 organization that signed the letter, along with 22 individuals ranging from mayors to pharmacists to scientists — says there are still questions as to what safe supply will look like, but calls this a “great window into the future.”
“[The government’s] been sort of forced into acting on this and they can’t claw it back,” says McBain. “It’s not like when COVID-19 leaves us and we’re all back to some sense of normal that they’re going to say we can’t have safe supply anymore because we don’t have COVID-19 — they’re not going to do that.”
According to Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, that isn’t necessarily the case.
“The federal government is saying these guidelines expire at the end of September 2020 and I don’t have a crystal ball,” says Darcy.
Under the new safe supply guidelines, people who don’t have a doctor can contact a rapid access addiction clinic or The Harbour Safe Consumption Site to get a prescription. Ranger explains that while people are getting a prescription for 23 to 30 days of safe supply, that does not mean you get to take home 23 days worth of drugs.
“Part of the prescription says you need to get your meds one day at a time or potentially two,” says Ranger. “The guidance tools are asking us to find pharmacies that can deliver and there are some that are doing that.”
From March 23 to 29 a spike in overdose deaths was reported in Vancouver and Ranger thinks it’s only a matter of time locally.
“I can say on the Island, in Victoria, we tend to be a week behind the trends so it could start happening for us,” he says.
McBain is worried about the same thing and says she doesn’t think safe supply will be rolled out fast enough.
“This is a victory for those who have been advocating for safe supply for years and it is important but is it going to stop what could be just the perfect storm for homeless people and marginalized people? I don’t think it’s going to be rolled out quickly enough to not see what’s coming down the pipe in terms of COVID infections, plus withdrawal from a dwindling supply of street drugs,” she says. “Prices are going up and supply is going down. People are getting desperate, it’s really scary.”
She says it’s the stigma attached to drug use that is diffusing the progress that needs to be made and points to the fact that alcohol and marijuana retailers are considered essential services.
“Liquor stores are an essential service because people are addicted to alcohol … people are addicted to drugs and why do they not have a safe supply, yet people who are addicted to alcohol have a safe supply,” McBain says.
Social service providers agree safe supply is a big step forward, but feel it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get there.
“It’s great that we’ve got this foundation but there certainly is a lot more work to be done to make it happen and that works need to be done with a sense of urgency because a lot of the stuff we’re doing right now is planning and we’re planning for things that are already happening,” says Ranger.