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Rob Shaw: Dr. Henry offers NDP no easy options on safe supply debate

Questions over safe supply will keep politicians up at night amidst simmering public discontent during an election year
dr-bonnie-henry-credit-bc-gov-flickr
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry | Government of B.C./Flickr

There’s very little enthusiasm within B.C.’s NDP government for a new report by the provincial health officer that calls for an expansion of the controversial safe supply drug program just eight months before a provincial election.

Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside made that much clear Thursday after she expressed “deep gratitude” to Dr. Bonnie Henry for a “thorough review” of the program.

Henry’s report called for all sorts of additions and growth of safe supply, from the types and quantities of drugs available, to an exploration of the “non-medical” model that would remove doctor prescriptions.

She also raised a few eyebrows by talking about how “recovery” doesn’t necessarily mean abstinence from drugs, and that the medical models for treatment and dispensing safe supply can be “racist and unsafe” for Indigenous peoples.

Whiteside steered way clear of all of that in her response to the report — though she did, again, inform Dr. Henry the government would not support removing prescriptions from safe supply.

Whiteside reminded the media that last year she “asked Dr. Henry to take a good critical look at the program, its guidance and how we can reduce risks such as people misusing their prescriptions.”

“We've already started work on several key recommendations, including reducing the risk of diversion by developing more guidance for clinicians and making witness dosing the default for any new medications that could become available under the program,” said Whiteside.

Neither of those were actual focuses of Dr. Henry’s report, though. New Democrats desperately wished she’d gone in that direction. The NDP was hoping for at least some new boundaries around the growing public unease about medical-grade drugs being prescribed to people who then sell them on the street.

Instead, Henry’s research team concluded that “diversion is not in itself good or bad or right or wrong” but merely a sign that the safe supply system isn’t meeting people’s needs.

Diversion has become a hot-button political issue.

The Opposition BC United and Conservative parties accuse the government's safe supply program of creating a new line of taxpayer-purchased street drugs, which is making it easier to get addicted, especially amongst youth.

BC United critic Elenore Sturko has repeatedly highlighted how packs of diverted dilaudid, called “dillies” on the street, have become common currency amongst users, with widespread prescription abuse.

“Months ago government officials called diversion an ‘Urban Myth,’” Sturko posted on social media after the report’s release.

“Now: ‘Emerging evidence indicates diversion of prescribed substance(s) is occurring and may be causing harms.’”

Dr. Henry’s report also revealed the deep unease amongst doctors and frontline medical staff that safe supply may be causing more young people to become addicted and then move to more powerful, unsafe, street drugs.

“Anecdotal reports have suggested that youth may increasingly be accessing diverted hydromorphone,” read one of the report’s key findings. But there’s no actual data, admitted Dr. Henry. She called on the government to have a single ministry to examine overall youth wellness.

Amidst that backdrop of concerns about diversion and youth, the government will have a harder time agreeing to Dr. Henry’s recommendation to add injectable heroin and smokable fentanyl to the safe supply roster — especially her proposal to eventually not require witnessed consumption of heroin.

If an unwitnessed safe supply of dilaudid is being diverted for sale on the street and causing new addictions, won’t unwitnessed heroin lead to the same concerns? How can the government agree to expand safe supply with so many unintended consequences from the first round of policies?

Those are the kind of questions that keep politicians up at night amidst simmering public discontent about public drug use, street disorder and crime during an election year.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com