Safer supply refers to providing prescribed medications as a safer alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply to people who are at high risk of overdose. Safer supply services can help prevent overdoses and help people live healthier lives. They can also connect people who use drugs to other health and social services.
On this page:
- The role of safer supply in addressing Canada's drug overdose crisis
- About safer supply services
- Where to access safer supply services
- Who can access safer supply services
- The difference between safer supply and opioid agonist treatment
- The benefits of safer supply
- How we are supporting safer supply
The role of safer supply in addressing Canada's drug overdose crisis
The drug overdose crisis continues to have devastating impacts on Canadian communities and families, which is deeply concerning. The illegal drug supply contains strong opioids, such as fentanyl, and other toxic substances causing high rates of overdoses and deaths. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to the worsening overdose crisis, with some communities reporting record high numbers of overdose deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency medical service calls.
Safer supply services provide an alternative to toxic illegal drug supply as a way to help prevent overdoses and can connect people to other health and social services.
About safer supply services
Safer supply services provide prescribed medications to people who use drugs overseen by a health care practitioner. They are provided in a less clinical and more flexible way compared to other care options for substance use, such as opioid agonist treatment (OAT). For example, safer supply services may offer:
- a range of medication options
- accessible locations
- flexible eligibility requirements
- flexible dosing conditions and carrying rules (for example, clients may be able to pick up their supply and use as needed)
- flexible client goals (for example, focusing on improving health and not requiring that clients stop using illegal drugs)
These services are intended to reach people at risk of overdose for whom currently available care options have been ineffective or inappropriate.
At the discretion of health care providers, the medications prescribed by safer supply services may include:
In some cases, safer supply services include providing or connecting people with other health and social services, where possible and appropriate, such as:
- general medical care
- mental health counseling
- supports for any other health conditions, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C
- employment supports
- housing supports
Where to access safer supply services
There are a number of safer supply service locations in Canada. Some are funded by larger initiatives such as our Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP). A list of safer supply projects funded by SUAP is available on the interactive map summarizing Canada's response to the overdose crisis.
Safer supply services may operate out of:
- medical clinics
- supportive housing
- community pharmacies
- community health centres
- supervised consumption sites
Some health care practitioners are starting to prescribe for safer supply purposes as part of their regular medical practice. Safer supply is one of many options that health care practitioners may consider while caring for people at risk of overdose. As with any other form of care, a practitioner's decision to prescribe certain medications depends on:
- their professional judgement, including whether or not to prescribe a medication outside of its authorized use
- the unique needs of each patient
- the rules and regulations in their province or territory
For more information and to find out what services are available in your area, contact your health care provider, provincial or local health authorities.
Who can access safer supply services
The eligibility criteria for safer supply services depends on who runs the services. For some services, participants require a diagnosis of substance use disorder. Others are open to anyone using illegal drugs, because of their high risk of overdose.
The difference between safer supply and opioid agonist treatment
Opioid agonist treatment (OAT)
Opioid agonist treatment (OAT) is an evidence-based approach for treating opioid use disorder. It involves the use of different oral medications to prevent withdrawal and lower cravings for opioid drugs. These medications include methadone, buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone), and slow-release oral morphine. Usually, the goal of traditional OAT is for a patient to stop taking drugs.
Safer supply refers to providing prescribed medications as a safer alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply to people who are at high risk of overdose. Safer supply services build on existing approaches that provide medications to treat substance use disorder. However, they are often more flexible and do not necessarily focus on stopping drug use. Instead, they focus on meeting the existing needs of people who use drugs, reducing their risk of overdose by helping people to be less reliant on toxic illegal drug supply, and providing connections to health and social services where possible and appropriate.
The benefits of safer supply
There is strong national and international evidence supporting the use of prescribed opioids as treatment for substance use disorder, including OAT.
While the evidence base for safer supply services is still developing, early research findings are promising and show that these services contribute to:
- reduced infections
- decreased crime activity
- lower rates of overdose deaths
- reduced hospital admissions and emergency room visits
- improved connections to general medical care
- improved connections to housing and social supports
- improved connections to care and treatment for people who have not had support services in the past
How we are supporting safer supply
Health Canada is supporting a number of safer supply projects across Canada funded by the Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP).
We have also taken action to increase access to safer supply services by:
- building an evidence base for safer supply by supporting pilot projects and seeking expert advice
- making it easier to access medications needed, including issuing exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
- sharing resources and guidance on treating substance use disorder for healthcare practitioners
Learn more about our actions to support safer supply and address substance use disorder.
For more information
Learn more about safer supply, problematic substance use during COVID-19, and what we are doing to address Canada's overdose crisis:
- An online toolkit including resources about substance use during COVID-19 and safer supply
Health Canada toolkit: COVID-19 and substance use
- Highlights of the Government of Canada's actions to address the overdose crisis, such as access to treatment, harm reduction and building evidence
Federal actions on opioids to date
- Letter sent by the Minister encouraging better access to safer supply services and action to address the overdose crisis
Letter from the Minister of Health regarding treatment and safer supply
- Interactive map summarizing actions by the Government of Canada to address the opioid crisis
Interactive Map: Canada's Response to The Opioid Crisis
- Health Canada actions to support for substance use and the overdose crisis during COVID-19
Helping people who use substances during the COVID-19 pandemic
Note: While many of these references are not available online, they are listed here for research or reference purposes.
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