Canadian Doctors Prescribe Opioids to Keep Patients Off Street Drugs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

So-called “safe injection sites” – supervised clinics where intravenous drug users can inject themselves -- remain controversial in the U.S. Efforts to establish such sites in San Francisco and Philadelphia are mired in political and legal opposition.

But supervised injection sites are already operating in several Canadian cities, where they are seen as an important resource in reducing the risk of overdose and getting drug users into treatment.

Some Canadian doctors, however, believe the injection sites leave out a key population – illicit drug users who don’t normally inject drugs. Rather than run the risk of those patients turning to risky street drugs, they are prescribing opioid medication to them.

“We have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and out of the medical establishment comfort zone and say that we need to keep people alive,” Dr. Andrea Sereda, a family physician at the London Intercommunity Health Centre in Ontario told Global News.

Sereda is prescribing hydromorphone tablets to about 100 patients, most of whom were homeless and using street drugs. So far there have been no fatal overdoses, half the patients have found housing, and they have regular contact with healthcare providers.

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“It’s not just a prescription for pills, but it’s a relationship between myself and the patient and a commitment to make things better,” Sereda said. “That involves me taking a risk and giving them a prescription, but it also involves the patient committing to doing things that I recommend about their health and us working together.”

Sereda says her “safer supply” program is only intended for patients who have failed at addiction treatment programs where methadone or Suboxone are usually prescribed.

A similar pilot program recently began at a Vancouver clinic, where hydromorphone tablets are given to about 50 patients, who ingest them on site under staff supervision. At another clinic in Toronto, hydromorphone is prescribed to 10 patients who would normally rely on the black market, where drugs are often tainted with illicit fentanyl or its lethal chemical cousin, carfentanil.

“I’ve had people who, literally, their urine is just all carfentanil,” Dr. Nanky Rai, a physician at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre told Global News. “That’s really what terrified me into action.”

Other physicians are warming up to the idea. Last week over 400 healthcare providers and researchers sent an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford asking that high dose injectable hydromorphone be made widely available to illicit drug users.

“We could rapidly implement hydromorphone prescribing,” Jessica Hales, a Toronto nurse practitioner, said in a statement. “Clients want this. Prescribers are eager to deliver it. But it is not covered under the Ontario Public Drug Plan, which is how almost all of my clients access prescription drugs.”

What About Pain Patients?

But patient advocates say the safe supply movement should be expanded to include pain patients who have lost access to opioid medication or had their doses drastically reduced.

“The Chronic Pain Association of Canada fully endorses the safe supply initiative, but asks why we’re helping one group while hurting the other, pointlessly. Safe supply is equally critical for the million or so unfortunate Canadians, including children, who suffer high-impact chronic pain and can no longer obtain the drugs they need,” Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada, said in a statement. 

“These patients have long been sustained by the pharmaceuticals and don’t abuse them. But now they’re routinely forced down or completely off their medications, blamed for overdoses they have no part in.”

Some pain patients are turning to street drugs. In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 chronic pain patients in the United States, eight out of ten said they are being prescribed a lower dose or that their opioid prescriptions were stopped. Many are turning to other substances for pain relief. About 15 percent have obtained opioid medication from family, friends or the black market, or used street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

“I know seven people personally that have gone to the streets to get pain relief. Four of them died because it was mixed with fentanyl. Two committed suicide,” one patient told us.

“I have been without a prescription for two years and have been getting medication on the street. I cannot afford this and I have no criminal history whatsoever. I have tried heroin for the first time in my life, out of desperation and thank God, did not like it,” wrote another patient.

Barry Ulmer says these patients need a safe supply too.

“Prescribing opiates safely to those with addiction makes sense. But simultaneously denying legitimate pain patients their medications doesn’t. It’s pointless — and cruel. Let’s give people with pain the same respect and care we give people with addiction,” he said.