Safe-supply pilot project findings promising, but advocates say more action is needed
OTTAWA – Advocates say while the early findings on safe supply pilot projects are promising, they’re still not meeting the needs of a large share of Canadians who are at risk of drug poisoning.
The federal government released early findings in March from 10 programs in British Columbia, Ontario and New Brunswick, showing there was a range of benefits for participants.
Participants and staff reported a significant change in substance use, including a decreased risk of overdose and decreased use of street drugs.
Participants also said they were less stressed and they had more stability, freeing up time to find and keep a job.
Gillian Kolla, researcher at Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, said the assessment centred the effect on the lives of participants, and she appreciated that it also made space for the challenges they experienced.
“I think that these challenges can actually go a long way to informing the development of these programs as they are being looked at as a possible response to the overdose crisis in Canada,” said Kolla, who also co-wrote the evaluation for the London InterCommunity Health Centre’s safer opioid supply program.
But Hugh Lampkin, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and a supervisor of the organization’s injection room, said his experience accessing one of the pilot programs was not positive.
The program required participants to come in once or twice a day to have drugs dispensed, which he said doesn’t make sense.
“You’re putting a chain on your legs, you can’t go anywhere. No school, work, all that stuff gets hurt because you have to go in,” he said.
Lampkin also questions that the initial findings are “too neat, it’s all perfect, all ‘everybody loves it.’”
“There’s not any criticism or any bad thing printed here. That should be suspect enough,” he said. “That’s impossible that the government would come up with a program and people in the program don’t have any criticism.”
Corey Ranger is a registered nurse and clinical lead for the Victoria Safer Initiative, another safe supply project. He said the benefits highlighted in federal report are consistent with what he’s seen in his own program.
Kolla said the programs are small and have very limited capacity to prescribe a safe supply of drugs, with often only one prescriber or organization for an entire city.
“This doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the needs or the capacity currently for this type of intervention,” she said, noting that the existing programs are already functioning at close to capacity.
Ranger wants to see a range of other models available for safe supply, including compassion clubs, which distribute clean-tested drugs to their members.
“We need to see an urgent up-scaling, because while many benefit from working in a medicalized model, even more don’t need to access a doctor, they just need access to safe and regulated drugs,” he said.
But he said there’s a lack of political will to explore non-medicalized models like compassion clubs.
“And it really will take some courage from our decision-makers in order to get there, and we haven’t seen that courage,” he said.