Canadian Inmates Fight for Access to Opiate Treatment

By May Wilkerson 03/24/16

Four opioid-addicted prisoners are challenging a prison policy that restricts access to prescriptions of methadone and Suboxone. 

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Inmates with addiction are fighting for access to treatment in British Columbia. The province in Canada is known for its progressive drug policy, but people in prison are not necessarily offered the same level of compassionate care.

Four inmates in BC jails have applied for an injunction to get access to opiate addiction treatment while behind bars, arguing they deserve the same health care as everyone else. According to the inmates, BC Corrections' policies prevent them from being prescribed methadone or Suboxone, both opioid substitutions which help addicts wean off heroin or prescription painkillers, unless they meet specific criteria.

"What I know about addiction is people have insight into their condition and they're ready to ask for help when they're ready to change,'' said the group’s lawyer, Adrienne Smith. "There's a fantastic opportunity there and Corrections is squandering that opportunity for no good reason. There ought not to be barriers in the way of people who are ready to change.''

The inmates, Brian Cooper, Shawn Gillam, Nikola Skupnik and Troy Underhill, who range in age between late 20s and late 40s, are currently in custody at three different provincial facilities while they await sentencing or remand, according to the Canadian Press. All four have said they were told they required a three-month or greater sentence to be prescribed opiate replacement drugs. But though that time has passed, they say they have still not received the medications. But the BC government offered a conflicting claim, saying there is no minimum length of time for inmates to begin treatment.

Smith is scheduled to defend her clients next Thursday, and will argue for an injunction that would give them immediate access to a doctor to determine whether they can receive treatment before their trials. She said she will argue that opiate replacement drugs prevent drug use in prisons and help prevent inmates from relapsing upon release. Illicit use of contraband drugs, often injected with unsterile syringes or in dangerous amounts, has led to a number of overdoses in BC prisons, she added. 

According to Smith, her clients also fear they are currently at risk of using drugs contaminated with potentially lethal fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more toxic than morphine and is often mixed with heroin. "I would like my clients to stay alive so they can have their day in court," she said.

Opiate replacement drugs would cost an estimated $4,000 a year per patient, Smith estimated. But this is still less costly than the $14,000 a year to treat a case of HIV, or the $60,000 to treat someone who contracts hepatitis C. "We know there is a base cost to prescribe medication, but the savings to the public are enormous in comparison," she said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.