Canada Approves Prescription Heroin

By Keri Blakinger 09/15/16

Pharmaceutical-grade heroin will be prescribed as part of a maintenance program for severe users in "exceptional cases."

Canada Approves Prescription Heroin for Some Drug Users

O Canada! Prescription heroin is now an option for qualified Canadians. The government just announced the controversial new policy as part of an ongoing effort to battle the country’s opioid crisis. 

Now, any doctor in the northern nation can apply to Health Canada for permission to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade heroin to the cross-section of users who haven’t found success with other treatment methods, the Washington Post reported. 

Legalized through a change to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the newly available narcotic will be distributed under the Special Access Programme, according to CNN. SAP gives access to unapproved drugs to treat life-threatening conditions in situations where "conventional therapies have failed, are unsuitable, or unavailable."

Currently, prescription heroin was already available to 52 patients at the Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver, a government-funded facility that was opened in 2005 to conduct a clinical trial on heroin maintenance treatment. Crosstown was given a court-ordered exemption to treat people with prescription heroin—but last week’s decision will broaden the drug’s availability to users in other regions. 

The decision to make diacetylmorphine—the chemical name for heroin—more readily available is based on good science, officials say. 

"Scientific evidence supports the medical use of diacetylmorphine for the treatment of chronic relapsing opioid dependence in certain individual cases," Canadian health officials told ABC News in a statement. "Health Canada recognizes the importance of providing physicians with the power to make evidence-based treatment proposals in these exceptional cases."  

Dr. Scott MacDonald, who developed Crosstown’s pilot program, specializes in those exceptional cases. "This is a kind of last resort to get them into care to get them off the streets," he said. "We see them come to us every day rather than stay on the streets ... that engagement and retention in care is a significant benefit."

Terry Lake, the health minister of British Columbia, told a local radio station that the government's decision demonstrated "a more healthy approach to addiction."

But not everyone sees the forward-thinking move as a plus, like Canada's Conservative Party. “Our policy is to take heroin out of the hands of addicts and not put it in their arms," said a spokesman for the party.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.