Opioid crisis: Government slow to create safe drug supply system

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OTTAWA-

More than a year after the federal government’s expert task force recommended creating a safe supply of substances to reduce people’s addiction to toxic drugs, the government has not created a system to procure them.

Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, told a recent parliamentary committee hearing that the government was developing a plan to deal with the opioid crisis.

But she was less clear about the steps she is taking to source supplies safely.

“I clearly think they don’t have a plan for a secure supply,” NDP MP Gord Johns said in an interview.

Johns, the party’s mental health and harm reduction spokesperson, said Bennett was vague about how she would provide a safe supply.

According to the June 2021 recommendations of Health Canada’s Expert Task Force on Substance Abuse, a regulated and safe supply of opioids would ensure that people are not dependent on the supply of unregulated and highly dangerous drugs on the street.

In response to a question about security of supply, Supply Minister Filomena Tassi told a House of Commons Committee of the Whole in May that she would make supply decisions based on requests from of Health Canada and works with the provinces and territories through the Department of Health. minister.

At a Commons health committee meeting in June, Johns asked Bennett what steps she was taking to increase safe supply.

Bennett said that although the government has approved diacetylmorphine, or heroin injection, as a new treatment option for people with severe opioid use disorders, “Pharmascience is not preparing to produce it.” .

She mentioned other controlled substances such as Dilaudid and fentanyl powder, but said doctors should be able to prescribe them.

Despite Bennett’s comments, ‘she hasn’t even reached out to ask the supply minister to secure a secure supply,’ said Johns, who added that the government needed to look at a secure supply model which has few barriers for those who need it.

Referring to the government’s work to procure COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic, Johns asked why it was not doing the same for a safe supply.

“It’s because it lacks political will, it’s not their priority, and they lack courage,” he said.

Bennett’s office did not directly respond to questions about whether she and Tassi were working together to secure a safe supply of opioids.

“Providing contracts for a safer supply of opioids is primarily a provincial and territorial responsibility,” Bennett’s office said in a recent statement.

Health Canada is currently supporting 17 safer supply projects in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, for a total investment of more than $64 million, its office said.

Natasha Touesnard, executive director of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, said she doesn’t think the government providing a safe supply only through pilot programs is an effective model because people who use drugs drugs will have unequal opportunities for services depending on where they live. .

The government’s slow action on safe supply shows it does not value the lives of people who use drugs, said Touesnard, who was co-chair of the expert working group and asked why the government was not acting on the recommendations of its own task force.

“Why are we still stagnating in this crisis? We are living in vicarious trauma, despair, the loss of people we love every day, and it is so traumatic for our community not to have the support of the government to bring a change,” she said, adding that safe supply would save lives and reduce other types of overdose harms.

“It’s a waste of everyone’s time to sit down at the table and have these conversations and then put them on a shelf to collect data,” Touesnard said.

She added that it would also be fiscally irresponsible to stay the course, with taxpayers bearing the healthcare costs of those who use the illegal toxic drug supply.

The expert task force said in its report last year that there is an “urgent need” for safe supplies to tackle the overdose crisis.

He recommended that an expert panel be struck to lead the design of a “national safer supply program” for up to a million Canadians who he says are at risk of dying from drug toxicity.

Since 2016, more than 29,000 Canadians have died of apparent opioid-related causes, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Those deaths have increased dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and death rates have remained high since then, the agency reported in June.

Touesnard repeated a frequent observation that has been made in the crisis-affected community: “It looks like they are talking – we are dying.”


This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 12, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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