Government 'using every tool' to tackle opioid crisis after addictions doctors raise concerns over safe supply

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Just days after more than a dozen addictions doctors wrote to the Liberal government raising concerns about the safe supply program, the government has responded, saying it’s “using every tool” to tackle the opioid crisis.

In the letter, addressed to Ya’ara Saks, the minister of addictions and mental health, the doctors’ group says that the safe supply program, which has seen doctors prescribe hydromorphone as an alternative to street drugs such as fentanyl, is harming Canadians.

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“We call on the government to ensure that all hydromorphone prescribed to people with opioid addiction is provided in a supervised fashion or that funding be ceased for the current harmful practice,” they write.

The safe supply program is meant to provide an alternative to street drugs of unknown purity and strength. In recent months, critics have raised concerns the prescribed hydromorphone is being “diverted,” with addicts selling it to purchase fentanyl.

“There is widespread evidence that this is occurring,” the letter says. The signatories further argue that diverted hydromorphone is “creating more children with addiction in our Junior High and High Schools,” and that addictions doctors are seeing evidence of diversion and childhood addiction in their practices.

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Mark Johnson, a Health Canada spokesman, wrote in an email to the National Post that diversion of drugs remains illegal.

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“This includes substances obtained from safer supply programs, which by law must only be used by the individual to whom they were prescribed,” Johnson wrote. “Individuals who are trafficking these substances are breaking the law and can be subject to action by law enforcement.”

There is debate within medical circles about the extent to which the safe supply program has been helpful. While the letter’s signatories argue that it’s adding drugs to the market, leading to further harms, others say the evidence points to fewer interactions with the health-care system and that hydromorphone is rarely present in the case of overdose deaths.

Further, Johnson said that prescribing of medications — which would include safe supplied hydromorphone — is governed by the provinces, and not the federal government. “Providers must also adhere to relevant provincial and territorial laws and regulations pertaining to the practice of medicine and prescribing of drugs containing controlled substances,” Johnson said.

Among safer supply programs supported by Health Canada, agreements govern how they operate, he said. “Those who do not comply risk termination of their funding agreement,” Johnson said.

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