B.C. introduces safe supply program to combat toxic drug crisis

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B.C. is beginning a new policy to expand access to prescribed supply in an effort to give people a safe alternative to poisoned illicit drugs. It is the first province to introduce this public health measure. 

The province will invest up to $22.6 million to regional health authorities over the next three years for the new approach.

The funding will support planning, phased implementation, monitoring and evaluation of prescribed safer supply services.

“For people who use drugs or who care about someone who does, the risk of death is omnipresent because of the increasingly toxic illicit drug supply,” said Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions. 

At the start of the pandemic, B.C. provided access to some safe prescribed drugs.

“We’re expanding access to prescribed safer supply to reach more people and save more lives. This is one tool within a comprehensive response to the overdose crisis as we continue to also build up a treatment system so everyone can get the care they need,” Malcolmson said.

Once the new program is fully implemented, people who use drugs and who are at high risk of dying from the toxic illicit drug supply will be able to access alternatives covered by Pharmacare, including a range of opioids and stimulants as determined by programs and prescribers, according to the province. 

“With more than 7,000 lives lost to toxic illicit drugs, we need new measures to connect people to the supports they need to stay safe,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer. “Reducing harm for people who use drugs is the right thing to do. Bringing in this new policy to expand prescribed safer supply is a big change for B.C.’s healthcare system.”

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions introduced this policy following months of work with partners and stakeholders, including medical doctors, nurses, pharmacists, people with lived and living experience, the First Nations Health Authority, all regional health authorities and Indigenous-led organizations, the province said.

The policy was developed within the limits of the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which requires controlled substances be provided by prescription.

This new prescribed safer supply policy will roll out through a phased approach, beginning with implementing the policy in existing health authority funded programs that currently prescribe alternatives to illicit drugs (e.g., opioid agonist treatment, oral and injectable tablet programs) and through newly created programs such as service hubs and outreach teams. 

The first phase is expected to be in place for 18–24 months as data is collected to assess the approach. 

Phased implementation ensures patient and prescriber safety, as well as providing opportunity for rigorous monitoring and evaluation as B.C. builds a body of evidence that will lead to clinical guidance for this policy, according to the province. 

Further phases will expand broader access once the clinical guidance is developed, based on findings from the monitoring and evaluation process.

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