Evan Wood has been named the first director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), a new research institute the province unveiled at a St. Paul’s Hospital news conference on Tuesday (February 7).
“The centre is opening in the context of a crisis,” Wood said. “We need to look at treatment options that will get people away from those sorts of desperate circumstances where they are using toxic street drugs.”
That was a reference to the overdose epidemic that last year killed 914 people across B.C. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in 60 percent of those cases.
The BCCSU has been established with $5 million in funding from the province (announced in September 2016) plus an additional $5 million provided this month. A private donor, Peter Bull, is also contributing $1 million over five years. The province will cover operating costs of $1.9 million a year. Wood is a UBC professor of medicine who has authored more than 400 research papers, many of them related to addiction and marginalized populations such as that of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In its first major action, the BCCSU released opioid-addictions treatment guidelines that are scheduled to take effect on June 5.
B.C. health minister Terry Lake described the document as significant for giving Suboxone—a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone—preference over methadone, which up until now was the most-common pharmaceutical treatment for opioid addiction in B.C. Lake noted the guidelines also include oral slow-release morphine as an alternative treatment for those individuals who do not see results with Suboxone and other conventional therapies.
“It would be terrible to squander this crisis and not develop a better system of treatment, prevention, and prescribing for opioid-use disorders,” he said.
The guidelines do not include the options of prescription heroin, also known as diacetylmorphine, or intravenous hydromorphone, two treatments that are available to a limited client base at a clinic in the Downtown Eastside. That disappointed some drug users who attended the news conference, including Dean Wilson, a former president of the Vancouver Area of Network of Drug Users (VANDU).
“Before fentanyl even came around, we were dying because the drugs are toxic. The drugs have to be prescribed. It’s the only way,” he shouted from the back of the room. “The problem is toxic drugs. We need them prescribed. You’ve been brave before. Be brave again.”
VANDU's current president, Laura Shaver, asked the health minister if the province's new overdose-prevention sites—one of which her organization operates at 380 East Hastings—would continue to receive government funding past the end of this fiscal year on March 31.
Lake's response was positive.
"We will continue to support overdose-prevention sites as long as they are needed," he replied. "Until we get approval from Health Canada and have our supervised-consumption sites up and running, we need to continue to save lives. So absolutely.”