Pilot project provides safe supply of drugs for some users on Vancouver Island

A four-year, $2-million pilot project will provide a safe alternative to street drugs for a select group of patients living in the Cowichan Valley on B.C.’s Vancouver Island who are at risk of overdosing.

The pilot project, announced by Patty Hajdu, federal minister of health, Judy Darcy, B.C. minister of mental health and addictions, and Dr. Richard Stanwick, the chief medical health officer with Island Health, will see a group of 25 patients receive hydromorphone tablets from a licensed prescriber. The patients will also receive peer support, medical care, mental health support and a personal support plan during the four-year period.

Stanwick says the project will see whether outcomes found in earlier studies in Vancouver can be duplicated in a smaller, more rural community. 

“This is a unique opportunity to test something that appears to work well in a big centre and export it to a smaller one,” Stanwick said to host Kathryn Marlow on CBC’s All Points West.

The pilot project, which is set to start in September, comes at a time when drug overdoses have skyrocketed in the province. May saw 170 overdose deaths — the highest number ever recorded for a single month in provincial history.

Island Health issued a warning Wednesday of an increase in overdoses in Victoria, Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley caused by stimulants and opioids. The health authority issued three similar warnings for those regions in the last four days.

“Just to frame how bad it is, we’ve probably lose, in a single week, [more people] to overdose than have died from the pandemic on the island,” said Stanwick.

As part of the project, patients will be given one or two hydromorphone tablets up to five times a day. The patients will be recommended by their doctors, other programs, and through self-referral. 

“One of the caveats are, unlike some of the other managed programs that we have in terms of opioids, is there will be direct supervision. This is a major factor in reducing the likelihood of a fatal overdose because one, it’s occurring with a safe drug supply, and two, it’s occurring in a safe setting,” Stanwick said. 

Stanwick acknowledges that given the scope of the crisis, he wishes more than 25 patients could participate. 

“This is but one solution. It’s a small start, but at least it’s a start in the right direction.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Richard Stanwick on CBC’s All Points West here:

A program that will provide a safe alternative to toxic street drugs is coming to the Cowichan Valley. The goal is to help people with opioid addictions who have not had success with other treatments. For the next four years they will receive tablets containing an opioid drug called hydromorphone, along with other healthcare services and peer support. Dr. Richard Stanwick is Chief Medical Officer for Island Health and he joins me now for more on this. He spoke with Kathryn Marlow. 10:26

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