The Green party has released the health portion of its platform for the 2017 provincial election. Compared to that of the Liberals and the NDP, it includes a more detailed plan for how B.C. should respond to the fentanyl crisis.
“Drugs contaminated with unknown quantities of fentanyl are killing people,” the platform reads. “Providing a clean alternative will save lives.
“Substitution drugs can be therapeutically administered and monitored in supportive housing units, pharmacies, overdose response centres and clinics.”
In a telephone interview, Jonina Campbell, the party’s candidate for New Westminster, confirmed those points mean the B.C. Greens would expand access to diacetylmorphine, the medical term for prescription heroin.
“What we are doing is not working,” she told the Straight. “So it is time to look at what the evidence says.”
One clinic in the Downtown Eastside has provided a small and select group of patients with prescription heroin since November 2014. An in-depth report the Straight published last March describes how patients who receive a regulated supply of heroin no longer have to risk injecting themselves with fentanyl, like those addicts forced to buy drugs on the street.
Campbell said it is now time to expand access to this sort of treatment.
“The provincial health officer and chief coroner are asking government to look at allowing health authorities to offer clean, medical-grade heroin to addicts for whom drug treatment has failed repeatedly or who are at risk of dying from contaminated street opioids,” she told the Straight.
Campbell added the federal health minister to that list. Vancouver’s mayor and B.C.’s health minister have also said they support wider access to prescription heroin.
“People have been calling for this for quite some time now,” she said.
“Even at supervised-injection sites people are still at risk of injecting heroin that is laced with fentanyl,” Campbell explained. “It is time to treat this as the public-health-care crisis that it is.”
Last year, 931 people died of an illicit-drug overdose death in B.C. That compares to an average of 212 deaths annually from 2001 to 2010.
The B.C. Liberal Party did not respond to a request for an interview on the subject of the overdose epidemic.
The Green party’s clear and specific support for prescription heroin separates it from the two leading political parties.
Selina Robinson is the NDP candidate for Coquitlam-Maillardville. In a telephone interview, she criticized the Green party for its leader’s past support for provincial budgets tabled by the Liberal government.
“When you support B.C. Liberal budgets, you are saying that you agree with how they are choosing to spend our dollars,” Robinson said. “That says you’re okay with it [the Liberals’ response to the rise in fatal overdoses]. Well I was never okay with it. This government has been negligent on the mental health and addictions front.”
Asked about the Greens’ plan for the fentanyl crisis, Robinson repeated that argument.
The Liberals' platform mentions opioid-substitution therapy, the more general category of treatment in which prescription heroin belongs, but not the controversial drug itself.
The NDP’s platform does not include any mention of prescription heroin or opioid-substitution therapy. However, in an interview with the Straight earlier this month, Robinson described an expansion of prescription heroin as worthy of consideration.
“When you are in the middle of a crisis, all options need to be on the table,” she said. “We need to explore everything because people are dying. And so we need to be prepared to look at all of those options.”
On Friday (April 21), Health Canada proposed revising federal regulations to make it significantly easier for doctors to supply patients with prescription heroin. The changes would eliminate many import restrictions, something that Vancouver care providers have complained about in the past.
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake is not running for reelection this year. Last February, he told the Straight the Liberal government is open to expanding access to prescription heroin but added that there are logistical constraints.
“We have those programs on a limited basis,” Lake said. “If there are opportunities to expand those programs, we will look for those opportunities. But it is never as simple as just opening up more space. We have to look at what that means in terms of costs and, of course, making sure it is appropriate for people.”