British Columbia officials have sought to rebut claims that drugs prescribed through the province's safe supply program aimed at curbing overdoses are being re-sold to young people, helping fuel the deadly drug toxicity crisis.
B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Jennifer Charlesworth, said her office reviews injury and death reports involving young people and she hasn't seen any sign that youth are either using drugs "diverted" from the safe supply program, or that they are suffering overdoses from such drugs.
Instead, she said "polarizing rhetoric" on the issue was causing harm.
"Safe supply is an alternative to the poison that is available on the street, and I’ll repeat, for emphasis, what I said earlier: there's no indication from our data that diverted safe supply is causing overdoses for children and youth," she said.
"Is it possible that diversion will be an issue in the future? Anything is possible within this highly complex and fast-evolving crisis we are all in."
Her remarks came after Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre recently told the House of Commons that federal and B.C. government policies are worsening the overdose crisis because prescription hydromorphone "gets sold to kids" by those taking part in the program, with the profits used to buy stronger substances, such as fentanyl.
B.C.'s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe — who joined Charlesworth and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at a news conference on Monday — said toxicology tests show hydromorphone hasn't been present in any significant number of deaths.
Officials are "closely monitoring, continually, for any and all trends that may impact public safety" as a result of the safe supply program, she said.
Henry said monitoring has not detected an increase in opioid overdoses involving children, or new diagnoses of opioid use disorder.
B.C. officials push back against safe supply critics and their 'polarizing rhetoric'. #BCPoli #SafeSupplyProgram #OverdoseCrisis #hydromorphone
She said the amount of hydromorphone being prescribed through the safe supply program is very small, and the drug has been available in large quantities through other routes for a long time.
Even if all of the hydromorphone prescribed as safe supply made its way to the street, "it would be a very, very tiny percentage of what is out there," she said.
Asked to comment, a spokesman for Poilievre shared links to recent media stories, saying they "directly challenge" the "allegations" made by the B.C. officials.
The three officials expressed concern over the "polarization" of safe supply and other harm-reduction measures.
Charlesworth told the news conference they were "standing together, saying fear-based, polarizing rhetoric that is not evidence-informed is causing harm."
Lapointe said it was not a response to any one person or media report, but they've been concerned about "increasingly polarized rhetoric that is not informed by evidence."
She said recent "divisive" language and rhetoric surrounding people who use drugs drives them further underground, and that includes children and youth.
"If they're using drugs, they will not come forward, or your relatives or your neighbours, and that is the most harmful thing we can do," she said.
Asked about safeguards to ensure prescribed drugs are not being resold, Lapointe said drug trafficking remains a crime.
Officials are "dealing with a lot of anecdotal information and allegations," she said.
Henry said officials can't change policies based on "individual stories or anecdotes."
"We need to have the data behind it."
Still, Henry said she wanted the public to know that officials take concerning reports from clinicians, media and others seriously, and they investigate accordingly.
"We are not just doing this without having robust monitoring and evaluation."
Henry said it may be time to re-evaluate the safe supply program to ensure it's meeting people's needs as the province emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has contributed to increases in drug toxicity and overdose deaths.
She said she's heard from some clinicians that hydromorphone isn't always meeting patients' needs, and may be used to acquire other substances.
"What we're also hearing from people who use drugs is that sometimes they use (hydromorphone) as a commodity for friends, for others, who don't have access."
Officials will review early evidence from the program to consider any adjustments over the coming weeks and months, Henry said.
More than 12,400 people have died from overdoses since the B.C. government declared a health emergency in 2016.
Lapointe said it's estimated that more than 100,000 people in B.C. have an opioid use disorder, a number that does not include people who use illicit opioids occasionally, or those who regularly or irregularly use stimulants.
"All of those tens of thousands of people are currently at risk of death or serious harm. A substantial, co-ordinated, comprehensive response is required."
— By Brenna Owen in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.