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Heroin, Hydromorphone, Oxycodone, Morphine, Pandemic, Influenza, Diacetylmorphine, COVID-19, SARS, Safe Supply



Safe supply is defined as the legal and regulated provision of drugs with mind and/or body altering properties that have been typically accessible only through the illegal drug market. In response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and related social/physical distancing measures, efforts have been made to scale up and increase access to safe supply programs in an effort to reduce overdose and other drug- and drug policy-related risks. However, it remains unclear whether these efforts taken thus far have meaningfully mitigated the barriers to safe supply experienced by People Who Use Drugs (PWUD), both during and beyond the context of COVID-19. We thus undertook a scoping review to identify key concepts, strategies and gaps in evidence with respect to the provision of safe supply during pandemics and other emergencies.


We conducted three searches across Scopus, Medline, Embase, CINAHL, and The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) for peer-reviewed and grey literature articles to understand barriers/facilitators to both accessing and prescribing legal, pharmaceutical-grade drugs, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and/or stimulants during public health emergencies from January 1 2002 to June 30 2020. We also included opioid agonist therapies (OAT) during emergency conditions. All potential sources underwent title/abstract screening and duplicate full- text review to determine eligibility for inclusion. Three reviewers extracted characteristics and barriers/facilitators to accessing or prescribing drugs for each study, and these were then inductively analyzed to identify common themes. Key stakeholders (PWUD, prescribers, and policymakers/regulators) informed the search strategy and validated findings and interpretations. Input from PWUD and prescribers was gathered through Advisory Committee meetings and one-on-one consultations, respectively. Results We screened 9,839 references and included 169 studies (135 peer-reviewed articles and 36 grey literature reports). From 119 articles, we identified 35 themes related to barriers/facilitators to prescribing safe supply or OAT. Few studies (n=24) focused on emergency or pandemic contexts. Among the most frequently reported barriers were restrictive laws or policies (n= 33; 28%). The most frequently cited facilitator was temporary legal or regulatory exemptions (n= 16; 13%). Further stakeholder consultation identified barriers/facilitators to safe supply absent in the reviewed literature: PWUD reported barriers including lack of access to desired substances, concerns about child apprehension, and a lack of cultural competency within safe supply/OAT programs; prescribers reported barriers including regional differences in service delivery, colleague support, and a lack of, or disagreement between, clinical guidance documents.


We identified multiple barriers and facilitators to accessing and/or prescribing safe supply or OAT. With few peer-reviewed studies on safe supply models, particularly in the context of emergencies, input from PWUD and other stakeholders offered crucial insights not reflected in the existing literature. To address the overdose epidemic stemming from the criminalization of an unregulated drug supply, prescribers, regulators, and public health authorities should focus on scaling up, and then evaluating, diverse safe supply frameworks that address the facilitators and barriers we have identified.