Vancouver is first North American city to give addicts prescription heroin treatment

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Vancouver is now the first North American city to offer prescription heroin to severely addicted patients in a ground-breaking treatment program.

The Providence Crosstown Clinic received their shipment of the drug (diacetylmorphine), which will soon be administered to 26 former participants of a clinical trial, according to the Globe and Mail.

In total, Health Canada has authorized 120 “severely addicted people” to take part in this treatment–the first of its kind outside of a clinical trial. The nearly 100 heroin addicts not getting this first round of dosages will get theirs soon.

It has been a long process to get this program off the ground. Within the initial clinical trial, called SALOME (Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness), doctors went in pursuit of permission to continue issuing the drug once the trial phase was over.

In October 2013, federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose slammed the doctors’ use of the drug, claiming it went against the “integrity” of Health Canada’s Special Access Programme (SAP).

“This decision is in direct opposition to the government’s anti-drug policy and violates the spirit and intent of the special access program,” Ambrose said in a statement at the time.

Ambrose ruled diacetylmorphine a restricted substance, thereby rendering it unavailable through the SAP.

The clinic, and five of its patients, took the matter to court. “On November 13, 2013 Providence and PIVOT [Legal Society] launched a constitutional challenge to overturn the federal government regulations. The challenge requested, among other things, a declaration that the new federal government regulations infringe on the Charter Rights, are unconstitutional, and should be struck down,” explains Providence Health Care.

In May 2014, The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled in favour of PIVOT and Providence Health, and reinstated access to the treatment drug.

Patients being treated for heroin addiction with diacetylmorphine attend the clinic two to three times daily for their injection with sterile implements, and are then monitored for a brief period in the clinic.

Studies conducted in Europe show that patients who do not respond to methodone treatment–the typical drug-based method in North America–who are instead being treated with diacetylmorphine show improved mental and physical health, increased sociability, and decreased criminal and illicit drug activity.

David Byres, vice-president of Acute Clinical Programs at Providence Health Care, spoke enthusiastically with the Globe and Mail about the arrival of the treatment drug. “The patients are so desperate for treatment, so desperate to be able to no longer be addicted,” Byres said, adding: “It’s a great thing to be able to help them, and help with the addiction that has taken over their entire lives.”

Featured image: Prescription medication and syringe via Shutterstock

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Lindsay William-Ross Lindsay is a Senior Editor at Vancity Buzz, and currently runs the site's Food section. A fourth generation Vancouverite, she spent the last two decades in Los Angeles, where she was EIC of the city's top blog, earned her MA, attended culinary school, and was an English professor (among other things). Lindsay's first published piece was December 1980 in The Province; it was her letter to Santa. E-mail: lindsay@vancitybuzz.com
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