Safe Supply vs. Pharmaceutical Development of Controlled Drugs: Two Distinct Approaches

November 22, 2023

In recent years, the debate over drug policy and access to controlled drugs has intensified. In Canada, discussion of developing legal cocaine for safe supply programs regularly makes headlines in major news outlets.

When discussing access to controlled substances, two distinct pathways are often erroneously conflated - the safe supply of hard drugs and the pharmaceutical development of controlled substances. These approaches differ significantly in their objectives, processes, and implications but are often lumped together because they both relate to hard drugs.

At Filament Health, we are pursuing the pharmaceutical development of coca leaf extract for the treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) through our joint venture, Magdalena Biosciences. While we acknowledge the importance of safe supply as a potential avenue to combat the toxic drug crisis, we believe it is crucial to make its distinction from the pharmaceutical pathway clear:

Safe Supply of Hard Drugs

Safe supply programs are innovative harm reduction initiatives designed to reduce the risks associated with hard drug use such as opioids and cocaine. These programs provide drug users with access to pharmaceutical-grade drugs in a controlled and supervised environment. The primary goal is to minimize harm caused by the illicit drug market, including overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases.

Key features of safe supply programs include:

  • Supervised Consumption: Users consume drugs in a safe and supervised environment, reducing the risk of overdose and other health complications.
  • Pharmaceutical-Quality Drugs: Safe supply programs offer drugs that meet pharmaceutical standards, ensuring purity and consistent dosages.
  • Medical and Counseling Support: Participants receive medical and counseling support to address their addiction and underlying issues.
  • Harm Reduction Focus: These programs prioritize reducing the negative consequences of drug use rather than promoting abstinence.

Pharmaceutical Development of Controlled Substances

The pharmaceutical development of controlled substances focuses on the research, development, and manufacturing of medications containing controlled substances for medical purposes. These substances are typically used to manage various medical conditions, including pain, anxiety, and attention disorders. When a drug candidate undergoes the stringent clinical development process, it is evaluated for safety and efficacy in treating a specific indication.

Key features of pharmaceutical development of controlled substances include:

  • Rigorous Research and Development: Pharmaceutical companies conduct extensive research and development to create safe and effective medications.
  • Regulatory Approval: Medications containing controlled substances must undergo rigorous regulatory scrutiny and receive approval from health authorities before they can be marketed and prescribed.
  • Medical Prescriptions: Controlled substances are prescribed by licensed healthcare providers to patients based on their medical needs.
  • Quality Control: Pharmaceutical companies adhere to strict quality control standards to ensure the safety and efficacy of their products.

Differences Between the Two Approaches

Safe supply programs for hard drugs and the pharmaceutical development of controlled substances represent distinct approaches with different objectives and processes. While both address issues related to controlled substances, they cater to different populations and priorities. As each area progresses, it will be increasingly important that policymakers, healthcare professionals, drug developers, the media, and the general public understand the distinction.