The fentanyl crisis in North America has killed hundreds of thousands of people and has sparked a push for a safer, regulated supply of currently illicit drugs.
But what is “safer supply”? How does it work? And why do we need it?
Why Safer Supply?
Supplying safer drugs is a pragmatic harm-reduction response to the escalating fentanyl death toll. Drugs purchased on the unregulated black market are increasingly tainted with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, causing massive numbers of unintended deaths.
After fifty years of prohibition, it is clear that preventing people from using drugs is futile. The term “safer” supply acknowledges that no drugs are entirely safe, but a legal, regulated supply is safer than the alternative.
Safer supply programs provide people with medical grade, unadulterated drugs and drastically reduce the risk of overdose.
Safer supply programs have proven to improve people's health, well-being, and the likelihood of securing housing and stable employment.
Safer supply is also an issue of human rights. Governments are responsible for protecting the health and lives of their citizens, and people who use drugs are entitled to the same rights as those who do not use drugs.
It isn't about drugs. It’s about saving lives.
What Does Safer Supply Look Like?
Safer supply involves the prescription of regulated, pharmaceutical-grade drugs by medical professionals.
The aim is to provide individuals with a safe and stable supply of drugs and to reduce the risk of harm or overdose associated with the illicit and contaminated drug market.
This may seem like a radical concept, but in reality, it has been around for decades.
In the early 20th century, drugs like opium, heroin and cocaine were prescribed by doctors in Australia, America, and the UK. Only when these drugs were criminalised did the black market that we know today begin to thrive.
Various forms of safer supply have proven effective around the world, including in Australia. Opioid agonist therapy (OAT) is an example of a well-known form of pharmacotherapy and a form of safer supply. It works by providing people with a long-acting synthetic opioid - methadone or buprenorphine - to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) is another example of safer supply. HAT involves prescribing medical-grade heroin to patients to treat opioid addiction. Switzerland first began implementing HAT in 1994, and it has since been adopted in Germany, Denmark, the UK, and Canada. In 1997, Australia's federal health minister backed a trial of Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT), but Prime Minister John Howard vetoed the proposal due to threats from the International Narcotics Board to cut Tasmania's legal opium production.
Canadian Safer Supply Programs
Canada remains a world leader in harm reduction, and has implemented innovative models of safer supply for decades.
The Canadian government has allocated substantial funding, exceeding $60 million, for new medical safer supply pilot projects across three provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, and New Brunswick. These projects involve the prescription of opioid replacements, including hydromorphone tablets, fentanyl patches, and pharmaceutical-grade heroin.
One initiative includes the placement of vending machines where individuals can access hydromorphone pills. Drug users scan their palms to identify themselves, and can access a safe, convenient alternative to the toxic street drugs.
Evaluations of these pilot projects have reported that patients are less likely to use fentanyl or other street drugs, less likely to be hospitalised, and dramatically less likely to overdose.
In response to increasing overdoses, community groups in Canada have called for greater investment into safer supply programs. One activist group in particular, Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) have brought attention to safer supply through their guerrilla activities. Since December of 2021, DULF have been supplying clean drugs and giving them away to local drug users. Their activities have been supported by local politicians and concerned parents, and highlight the life-saving potential of evidence-based harm reduction.
Safer Supply in Australia?
Australia, like Canada, faces its own set of challenges related to drug use and the illicit drug market.
In 2021, 1,675 Australians died from accidental drug overdoses. The reasons for these deaths are numerous, however many are due to the dangerous illicit drug market.
One of the major concerns is the rise of fentanyl. Shipments of fentanyl are already being detected en route to Australia, and fentanyl related deaths are on the rise. Experts are warning that if we don’t act quickly to prevent it, Australia will soon face the deadly consequences of fentanyl.
But it’s not just opioids that are causing harm. Unregulated party drugs pose their own threat, and the results from the recent pill testing trial in Canberra highlight this. During the trial, it was found that almost half of the substances thought to be ketamine were actually something else entirely. Moreover, almost 30 per cent of ‘MDMA’ tested did not contain MDMA.
There is no control over the strength or quality of drugs from the illicit market, and these drugs are killing people, including young Australians.
This is why, year after year, Australians die at festivals from drug overdoses.
As well as saving lives, safer supply would take billions of dollars out of the hands of organised crime groups. Organised crime costs Australia close to $60 billion each year, and brings violence, weapons smuggling, and large-scale money laundering schemes onto our shores.
A safer supply of drugs might seem like a radical idea, but it’s an idea that already exists in Australia and around the world.
Governments know with absolute certainty that people will continue to take drugs, so we may as well prevent them from needless harm and suffering.
The safe supply movement is a call to action in the face of senseless deaths, failed policies, and the grip of organised crime. It’s a path towards building a safer, healthier world for all.
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