VANCOUVER -- A cohort of registered nurses in B.C. will become the first in the country to begin prescribing a medication to treat opioid-use disorder, the province announced Monday.

The group of 30 nurses – who are either RNs or registered psychiatric nurses – will finish their training this month, allowing them to prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone, more commonly known as Suboxone. Previously, the medication was only prescribed by family physicians, psychiatrists and nurse practitioners.

"We are coming up on five years since British Columbia declared overdose a public health emergency, and more than 6,000 people have died because of toxic street drugs since that time," said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in a news release.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has put people who use drugs at much higher risk for overdose. This crisis isn’t unique to our province – it’s a national issue – but B.C. is breaking ground when it comes to our response."

Other cohorts will be trained in the future and that training will be expanded to include other medications like slow-release oral morphine and methadone. The nurses must meet several requirements before being allowed to prescribe the medication, including finishing training created by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

"Too many people in our province are grieving the loss of someone they love, and far too many people remain at risk of overdose. Highly toxic street drugs are rampant, and we must separate people from these dangerous, unpredictable drugs," said Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions.

"Expanding access to addiction treatment medications is essential to getting a handle on this crisis. We are building our capacity to do this by balancing urgent action with careful implementation to ensure patient and practitioner safety every step of the way."

The province says more than 23,000 people in B.C. are currently receiving some form of opioid agonist treatment, or OAT, which helps prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs.