News / Vancouver

Opioid crisis requires trying ‘everything’: Expert on prescribed heroin

Canadian Drug Policy Coalition director Donald MacPherson says prescription opioids would “take people out of the illegal market and save a bunch of lives.”

A man prepares heroin he bought on the street to be injected at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. Workers at Vancouver's supervised-injection site have been dealing with a higher-than-normal number of drug overdoses this week as the facility expands its hours to deal with the region's opioid crisis.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A man prepares heroin he bought on the street to be injected at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. Workers at Vancouver's supervised-injection site have been dealing with a higher-than-normal number of drug overdoses this week as the facility expands its hours to deal with the region's opioid crisis.

Desperate times call for rational measures.

With the City of Vancouver warning that overdose deaths in March are likely to surpass February’s, advocates say British Columbia’s growing overdose crisis requires a different approach to drugs.

The push for expanded programs like heroin-assisted treatment, substitution therapies and even decriminalized drugs is not new in Vancouver’s harm reduction community but now politicians and decision-makers from across the political spectrum are lending their support as the province’s public health emergency continues to get worse.

Nine hundred and fourteen people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. last year.

At least 21 people have died this month in Vancouver alone, according to the city.

“I think the reality of the failure of our [drug] policies has sunk in on all sides. People are thinking in terms of an emergency and they now get it. They get that the illegal drug market is poison and deadly and there are therapies out there, including prescription heroin, that work and people should have access to them,” said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of the Four Pillars harm reduction approach. “People are really running scared right now. Which is why you’re hearing these voices on all sides saying, ‘Jesus, do something.’ I think it’s good that we’ve arrived at that point.”

Downtown Eastside market co-ordinator Sarah Blyth is one of the organizers behind an unsanctioned, and incredibly popular, pop-up consumption tent in an alley in the community.

She told Metro more people than ever are using the tent, 300 to 400 people a day.

There hasn’t been a single overdose death at Insite, the volunteer-run tent or any of Vancouver Coastal Health’s improvised overdose prevention sites during the crisis.

While clearly an effective emergency tool, Blyth wishes she had more to offer people than a supervised place to use street drugs that are increasingly laced with lethal fentanyl.

“What we’d like to see, ideally, is someone there saying, ‘Hey, instead of injecting yourself with that random god-knows-what that will kill you, why don’t you come get a prescription and let’s see what we can do to help you,’” said Blyth. “They can just go get their medication and go home. What we’re doing with overdose prevention sites is not something that needs to be done forever if we can figure out a different way of thinking about drugs.

“All the doctors know, all the medical folks, anyone in mental health, everyone knows that’s the way to go. It’s time to just do it.”

MacPherson, who is moderating an expert panel on heroin-assisted treatment next week, agrees.

“The thing is, when an emergency is called, you do things different. You cannot continue to do things the way you usually do. That’s the whole point, right?” he said. “In the context of an emergency, you need to find as many tools in the toolbox as you can. [Prescribed treatments] would take people out of the illegal market and probably save a bunch of lives.”

The free public event at SFU Woodwards, titled Heroin Assisted Treatment: Saving Lives during the Overdose Death Crisis, will be held Monday, March 27 at 7 p.m.

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