Canada’s Answer to Addiction? Prescription Heroin

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Vancouver has traditionally taken a progressive approach when it comes to treating drug addiction, but the city is doing much more than “breaking new ground” with its latest initiative. Believe it or not, the Canadian city is now offering prescription heroin to a group of selected addicts.

Giving Illicit Drugs to Addicts?

Canadian doctors have selected 202 patients for the trial program, 120 of whom will receive heroin prescriptions.

“The patients receiving heroin are being given the drug as a last-option resort because traditional therapies such as methadone have failed to work with them at least 11 times.”The patients receiving heroin are being given the drug as a last-option resort because traditional therapies such as methadone have failed to work with them at least 11 times. The treatment program costs about $27,000 annually for each patient, but the cost will be covered by the clinic.

“For this group, the addiction is so severe that no other treatment has been effective. The goal is stabilization,” said David Byres, vice president of acute clinical programs at Providence Health Care. “When they come into the clinic, not only do they receive treatment for their addiction; they receive primary care or medical treatment, they can get counseling, they can get mental health care.”

The heroin is distributed on a highly regimented schedule that requires patients to come to the clinic three times daily. On-site nurses perform an assessment and dispense the medication to the users. They have 10 minutes to use the heroin, then they remain under staff observation before leaving the clinic.

Is this Really Harm Reduction?

Although some European countries allow for heroin-assisted treatment – including Denmark, Germany and Switzerland – this is the first time it’s been permitted in North America.

“This is safe, evidence-based treatment,” said Dr. Scott MacDonald, lead physician at Crosstown Clinic. “When people first come off the street, they are often unstable. But within a few weeks here and sometimes it’s just days—we see a remarkable turnaround.”

Vancouver has adopted a harm reduction approach for nearly 20 years. Some of the city’s initiatives have been risky, including the opening of InSite, Canada’s first supervised legal injection facility. However, a report released last June by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS found that harm reduction has effectively reduced illegal drug use and improved public safety. Despite that report, a batch of “bad” heroin recently devastated the city’s heroin-dependent, causing a record 31 overdoses at the InSite clinic alone.

A Look at the Numbers

Almost 40 percent of IV drug users reported sharing needles in 1996, but that number dropped to 1.7 percent by 2011. The percentage of users who accessed methadone treatment jumped from 12 percent to 54 percent during that time period, while the study also found a decrease new HIV and Hepatitis C infections related to sharing needles.

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