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They had access to a safe supply as health-care workers. That’s why they want the same for others

Corey Williams and Nathan McLean are advocates for safe supply, after having lived experience with addiction and working in healthcare.

'What do you do in emergencies? You triage. Let's start by keeping people alive': community pharmacist

Two men stand in a backyard with their arms around each other smiling.

Corey Williams, 37, was an emergency room nurse for nine years. There, he encountered trauma and stress that, over time, took a toll on him.

He turned to hydromorphone, an opioid often used in hospital settings, to help him cope.

"Anyone who's ever worked in an emergency department is aware that narcotics are readily available — they're sitting on the counter right in front of you and under a state of anxiety, it's just that easy to pick up a vial," he said.

Williams, who lives in Mission, B.C., acknowledges that he had access to a safe supply of drugs, a supply that wasn't poisoned with unknown substances that could kill him, unlike so many people living with addiction and forced to buy drugs on the street.

"I was treating people who were dying of overdoses daily, and I was aware that if my choice was different that day, I would be dead."

That's why now, he advocates for a safe supply.

It's a similar story for Nathan McLean, a community pharmacist in Kelowna, B.C. While at work one day, he was suffering from an intense migraine and took a Percocet from the cupboard to ease the pain.

What he didn't expect was the impact it would have on his mental health.

In the weeks leading up to that day, he had been struggling with his emotions as things piled on in his personal life, including a death in the family.

"Once I realized that that effect [from the pills] was available, it became all too easy to repeat the behaviour," said McLean, 45.

Both Williams and McLean have been through recovery and have since started a podcast called Recovery Machine, which aims to support other health-care workers who are struggling with mental health and addiction.

'Let's start by keeping people alive'

B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016 when deaths due to toxic drugs began to rapidly increase. Since then, more than 11,000 people have died from using poisonous drugs. During that time and even before, the idea of a safe supply of drugs to offer users in order to protect them from taking unknown substances has become political and highly divisive.

"If this is an emergency, what do you do in emergencies? You triage," McLean said. "You gotta look to what's happening right now and deal with the people who are dying first. Let's start by keeping people alive."

In March 2020, B.C. started offering a prescribed safer supply to some individuals. The province said a little over 5,000 people accessed safer supply in March 2023. Even so, hundreds continue to die each month.

In this year's provincial budget, the government allotted $184 million over three years to support safer substance use. On Wednesday, officials announced universal coverage for medications to treat opioid addiction.

Last month, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling on the Liberals to halt safe-supply programs and redirect funding to treatment instead. It was ultimately shot down.

Williams says treatment must come when an individual is ready for it.

"It's not about pushing someone into treatment. It's about keeping someone safe."

WATCH | Recovery must be a choice, former ER nurse says:

Former ER nurse on why treatment isn't a substitute for safe supply

19 hours ago

Duration 1:47

Corey Williams says nurses living with addiction already have access to a safe supply and hopes the way in which leaders and politicians approach addiction will change.

That's why having a safe supply available to all drug users is important, he says.

"All of the nurses who end up using hydromorphone are using a safe supply, any health-care worker who's ever taken something off the counter … is using a safe supply.

"There's already been an experiment of safe supply among health-care workers struggling with addiction to hydromorphone, and they don't die from it. They survive."

McLean says a safe supply program is a "no-brainer."

"If you can explain to me another way out of this crisis, then I would like to hear it..

"I don't know how we can do much worse than we're doing right now. How does anybody see us coming out of this without a safe supply?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson

Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

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