Leslie McBain, advocate from Moms Stop the Harm, speaks to the opioid crisis. Her son died from a prescription drug overdose in a similar situation to Elliot Eurchuk a 16-year-old who died from an accidental overdose last week. (Arnold Lim/Black Press Media)

Drug users, B.C. advocates fear federal election may sideline safer opioids policy

Health Canada needs to provide information to the public about the safer-opioids review, Leslie McBain says

The co-founder of a national group of parents whose children have died of overdoses fears the looming federal election will derail any policy changes that could make a safer supply of opioids a priority, even as the country’s chief public health officer has promised to review such a plan.

Leslie McBain of B.C.-based Moms Stop the Harm said the overemphasis on addiction treatment has not worked because drug users are continuing to use the black market to access fentanyl-laced substances that have killed thousands of Canadians.

“In implementing a safe supply (policy), it brings the people who need it into an environment where they can then also be offered different forms of treatment. It keeps them alive. It takes courage to make that step to recovery,” said McBain, whose 25-year-old son fatally overdosed five years ago.

“I think the federal government is trying to do the right thing but in an election year the Liberals don’t want to do anything that might further impact their base.”

McBain, who advocates for families with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said Health Canada needs to provide the public with information about the process involved in a safer-opioids review by Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, who announced in December she will gather data from provinces and territories.

“We are committed to exploring additional options for creating the conditions for a safer supply of opioids,” the agency said in a statement, adding its work is “ongoing.”

Last week, British Columbia’s mental health and addictions minister, Judy Darcy, called on the federal government to “open a courageous conversation” on safer opioids.

The ministry says it expects to respond to the federal government’s information request for its review by the end of April.

Pharmaceutical-grade heroin has been provided since 2014 at the Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver, the only such facility in North America, but the program requiring users to have up to three injections a day under the supervision of nurses can accommodate only about 100 patients at a time and has not been adequately expanded since B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016.

WATCH: Moms of those killed by illicit opioids take to B.C. Legislature in call for action

Dr. Scott MacDonald, lead physician at Crosstown, which also offers the injectable form of the opioid hydromorphone, said there’s no reason why British Columbia can’t increase access to the program, which an estimated 500 entrenched drug users needed back in 2013.

“So clearly there’s a need for expansion, not only in Vancouver and British Columbia but across the country,” he said. “And that could be part of the safe supply.”

However, he said the pure heroin, or diacetylmorphine, must be imported from Switzerland and Health Canada has not made it possible for it to be produced domestically.

MacDonald said injectable opioids have been available in B.C. as more than 3,000 people have died in the province since the emergency was declared three years ago.

“I don’t understand the delay,” he said.

READ MORE: B.C. opioid overdoses still killing four people a day, health officials say

READ MORE: 2,000 Canadians died of an overdose in first 6 months of the year

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s about care for people who are at risk for overdose and death and have not responded to any other treatment. It just needs to be made available,” he said, adding diacetylmorphine is an option for five to eight per cent of drug users.

Three clinics in British Columbia offer injectable hydromorphone, two sites have made it available in Alberta — one each in Calgary and Edmonton — while Ottawa has one facility, MacDonald said.

B.C.’s Mental Health and Addictions Ministry said it is working with health authorities “to expand injectable hydromorphone therapy as quickly as possible as an additional tool to support people with opioid use disorder.”

Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, said expanding addiction treatment programs has been “too timid” a response and that’s obvious in British Columbia, where the coroner’s service recently reported 1,489 people fatally overdosed in 2018, slightly higher than the previous year.

“It shows that the government’s direction and policy was ineffective,” Westfall said. “It sounds politically much nicer to say we need treatment. This is a systemic issue and no amount of treatment will change that fact. People are going to continue dying.”

Shanelle Twan, a member of the same network in Edmonton, said the group is planning a day of action across the country in April to draw attention to the need for safer opioids.

“Something needs to be done quickly but it just seems that everything is moving at a glacial pace right now,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that politics have to come into play when you’re talking about the lives of ordinary Canadians.”

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said not providing legal opioids to people who have the “disease” of addiction is “barbaric.”

MacPherson, who was the drug-policy co-ordinator for Vancouver from 2000 to 2009, said starting in the spring, his coalition plans to launch a three-year campaign to educate people across the country on drug policy.

He said while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been criticized for saying no to decriminalizing drugs, movement on that issue would not solve the problem of toxic drugs that have killed thousands of Canadians.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Woman stabbed in downtown Nelson

Victim is in hospital, suspect is in police custody

Liberals’ Kootenay-Columbia candidate stands by Trudeau despite scandal

Robin Goldsbury says the prime minister’s racist photo is a learning opportunity

Kootenay-Columbia incumbent MP responds to Trudeau brownface scandal

Stetski proud of NDP leader Singh’s reaction, which focused on people not power

Inclusive Employer Award goes to local landscaper

Chris Holt hires people with special needs to do garden maintenance

VIDEO: Trudeau asks Canada to look to current, not past, actions on race

Liberal leader says he never spoke about the racist photo because he was embarrassed

Horvat paces Canucks to 6-1 pre-season win over Oilers

Vancouver improves to 3-1 in NHL exhibition action

‘Really disturbing:’ Trudeau’s racist photos worry B.C. First Nation chief

Wet’suwet’en Chief concerned the photos will sow fear in Indigenous communities

‘Unacceptable’: What politicians have to say about Trudeau in blackface

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi: ‘When I saw that picture last night, certainly it was a sucker-punch’

‘He’s trying to kill me’: Victoria police commandeer boats to reach screaming woman

No charges laid and civilians to be awarded honours after incident on Gorge Waterway

VIDEO: B.C. man accused of assaulting sex worker loses temper in interrogation

Defence lawyer says statements made by accused Curtis Sagmoen should be deemed inadmissible

John Horgan promises action after fatal mid-Island bus crash

Premier cites students, local Indigneous community as reason to repair the road

Teens charged in stabbing death of B.C. man in strip mall parking lot

Two youths, aged 15 and 16, charged in Aug. 16 killing of South Surrey’s Paul Prestbakmo

Forestry watchdog warned B.C. government about Bamfield Road in 2008

Ombusman’s specific concerns re-surface in wake of bus crash that killed two students

Most Read