Canadian Supreme Court Okays Supervised Heroin Use

By John Lavitt 07/03/14

Despite objections from conservatives, the court has allowed prescribed heroin for "entrenched addicts."

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The British Columbia Supreme Court recently decided to allow ongoing prescribed and supervised heroin use by a certain class of “entrenched addicts” who were part of a past clinical trial. While a larger constitutional challenge about the case moves before the court, the addicts will continue receiving the drug they were prescribed during the trial. Defying expectations and befuddling conservatives, this is the second time in 2014 that Canadian courts have approved the prescribed heroin use.

Researchers from Providence Health Care and the University of British Columbia previously conducted two heroin studies in Vancouver. Part of SALOME (The Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness), the studies focused on a small subsection of severe heroin users. Called “entrenched addicts,”  the participants have not responded to repeated attempts at conventional treatments such as methadone and Suboxone.

In a surprising discovery, the clinical study found that prescription heroin is an effective second-line treatment. The entrenched addicts who received prescription heroin in a supervised medical setting improved in health, reduced criminal activity, and maintained constructive involvement with the program. In fact, they actually fared better overall than a comparable group who remained solely on methadone maintenance.

Despite the success of the clinical trial, the conservative government wanted nothing to do with the controversial treatment method they consider to be illegal. In what has been described as a purely ideological move, Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose stepped in and introduced new regulations to make prescribing the drug illegal. Ambrose stated that administering heroin as a second-line treatment is the same as giving up on traditional treatment methods.

Despite the government’s position, Adrienne Smith, a health and drug policy lawyer, called the Supreme Court decision “a victory for evidence-based health care.” Medical professionals who administered the clinical trial are relieved by the decision. They have seen what has happened to the entrenched addicts firsthand. Since the government banned their treatment, many chose to return to the Vancouver streets, relapsing into illegal heroin abuse and criminality.

Joseph Arvay, the lawyer for the Providence researchers, argued that the new regulations violated the Charter rights of the plaintiffs. Avery described the heart of the case when he said, “Heroin addicts are one of the most vilified and stigmatized groups in our society…We say these provisions perpetuate prejudice against them by demonizing the one treatment that might save their lives.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.