Ottawa Considers New Round of Safer Supply Funding as RCMP Raises Alarm

Ottawa Considers New Round of Safer Supply Funding as RCMP Raises Alarm
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks in Ottawa on April 9, 2024. (The Canadian Press/ Patrick Doyle)
Tara MacIsaac
Ottawa is considering a new round of funding for safer supply programs starting in June. Meanwhile, RCMP announced on April 8 the latest in a string of drug busts that found safer supply opioids in bulk.

Drug dealers are obtaining large amounts of government-funded safer supply opioids, says the RCMP in Prince George, B.C. A spokesperson said the drugs are obviously being sold somewhere, but she couldn’t reveal whether an ongoing investigation has found them ending up in the hands of teenagers.

Some addictions workers and teenagers in British Columbia have said safer supply opioids are now common recreational drugs for youth, and some are getting hooked. It’s a concern at the heart of a national debate on safer supply. To what extent are the drugs helping addicts avoid overdose on more potent street drugs? To what extent are they fuelling addiction?

“Is it going into the hands of our youth? Is it going to other people under the guise of being ’safer' because it was prescribed medication? Organized crime is making profit off of this somehow,” RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Cooper told The Epoch Times on April 8.

The RCMP is part of a multi-unit investigation into safer supply diversion in Prince George. But this isn’t only happening in Prince George. A Feb. 21 RCMP bust found diverted safer supply drugs in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

Investigators have witnessed people coming out of pharmacies with their safer supply drugs and being immediately targeted by alleged drug dealers, Cpl. Cooper said. She couldn’t discuss any leads investigators may have on where the drugs are being sold.

“Those are still ongoing investigations, and I would hate to compromise any of the hard work being done,” she said. “Our investigative theory is that these drugs are going somewhere—they’re being bulk collected. These are not small amounts that we are locating and finding through our investigation. It’s large amounts. So it’s going somewhere.”

Dr. Mark Mallet, a hospitalist at Victoria General Hospital, says some of it is certainly being sold to teenagers.

“We know anecdotally that youth are becoming addicted to opioids via safer supply. I personally know someone this has happened to, and I have spoken to a number of local doctors who have teenage patients this has happened to. I also have teenage kids who tell me they know other high school students who have become addicted to safer supply opioids,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

He has been vocal on the issue for months, penning op-eds and organizing doctors to speak out about the problems. He said numerous addiction medicine specialists have reached out to him and said they share his concerns.
Drugs, including safer supply prescription drugs, seized by police in Prince George, B.C., as the RCMP reported on April 8, 2024. (Prince George RCMP Handout)
Drugs, including safer supply prescription drugs, seized by police in Prince George, B.C., as the RCMP reported on April 8, 2024. (Prince George RCMP Handout)
Meanwhile, Ottawa’s funding for many safer supply programs across the country expired on March 31 and the federal government is currently considering a new round of funding. When Health Canada announced new funding to address substance-related harms in Ontario in March 2023, it said the department had spent over $88.3 million since 2017 on safer supply projects in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick.

Health Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau told The Epoch Times in an email on April 8 that the department is currently reviewing applications for funding. She said it’s looking to start any new funding on June 1 and that the new funding could cover program operations through to March 31, 2028.

Ms. Jarbeau did not provide information about any programs already approved. But at least one program—the oldest in Canada, and one also fraught with diversion controversy—has had its funding renewed.

Diversion Concerns in London, Ont.

That program is the Safer Opioid Supply Program at the London InterCommunity Health Centre, which began operation in 2016. It received confirmation it will be funded for another year, according to reporting by CBC.
Dr. Andrea Sereda, who leads the program, testified before a House health committee on Feb. 26.

MPs asked her repeatedly if she is aware of reported diversion at Chapman’s Pharmacy near her clinic. Pressed for a “yes” or “no” answer, she said “I’m going to decline to answer a complicated question without being given a chance for a complicated answer.”

They asked Dr. Sereda if she feels morally responsible for the medications she prescribed that may be sold on the street.

“I am morally responsible for my patients to stay alive,” she said. She spoke of her patients being worried they will have to go back to more dangerous street drugs if the program ends. They would also have to go back to paying for their drugs and the struggles that entails, she said. That includes risky behaviours associated with getting money for drugs and loss of housing due to inability to afford it while also feeding a drug habit.

Dr. Sharon Koivu, an addictions specialist and researcher at the London Health Sciences Centre, told The Epoch Times last year that she initially saw many benefits of the safer supply program. For example, patients with HIV were better connected with treatment as part of wrap-around services offered through the program. But then she saw the negative impacts as well.

“I started seeing the problems of diversion, more addiction, younger people using, people ... moving to encampments near the pharmacy where much of the diversion takes place,” she said. “I also lived within 1 km of the program and watched my neighbourhood deteriorate.”

“People who were initially the ones the program intended to help are often vulnerable and are forced into giving up much of their [prescriptions],” she added. “As more people were using opioids, it brought illicit fentanyl to our community.”

Dr. Sereda told the MPs that there is no evidence the safer supply drugs are ending up in the hands of children.

Dr. Mallet told The Epoch Times that this is because nobody is collecting evidence.

Concerns About Teens Dismissed

B.C. and federal officials have largely dismissed concerns about teens obtaining safer supply.
Criticism of safer supply is driven by “stigma and fear,” federal mental health and addictions minister Ya'ara Saks told The Canadian Press in February.

B.C. officials often cite the coroner’s data showing people are not dying of hydromorphone overdoses. Hydromorphone is the main safer supply drug, although the province is expanding its use of safer supply fentanyl and other substances. Hydromorphone is also known by the brand name Dilaudid or the street name “Dillies.”

While youth may not be dying of hydromorphone overdoses, the concern is that young people are starting the path of addiction with hydromorphone and then progressing to the stronger highs offered by fentanyl.

Dr. Mallet said officials also sometimes cite the low number of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) diagnoses among youth.

“But typically someone would have to be quite an entrenched user to be formally given this diagnosis,” he said. “There would typically be quite a long lag time between starting opioid use and receiving a formal diagnosis. Many opioid users have never been formally diagnosed.”

Tara MacIsaac is a senior reporter with the Canadian edition of The Epoch Times.