Scott MacDonald is the lead physician at Crosstown Clinic, a Vancouver, British Columbia medical facility that opened in 2005 to conduct trials of prescription heroin.
MacDonald has worked with 52 patients, though that number is expected to double now that the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has passed guidelines making it possible for doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade heroin to qualifying users.
“This is a kind of last resort to get [addicts] into care, to get them off the street,” MacDonald tells ABC News, adding that Crosstown Clinic’s pilot program has seen major success.
The crisis of opioid addiction that’s ravaged the U.S. – more than 28,000 recorded deaths in 2014 alone – has certainly crossed Canadian borders. The country has experienced a sharp rise in opioid and heroin fatalities.
Under the new laws, Canadian physicians will be able to apply to Health Canada for pharmaceutical-grade heroin, known as diacetylmorphine.
The drug will only be available in the most extreme cases, where traditional treatment options have all been exhausted and a patient continues to relapse. Most of these situations, says MacDonald, involve patients who are long-term users.
What is the Upside to Legalized Heroin Treatment in Canada?
The program, as The Washington Post reports, is not just a heroin giveaway:
- Patients are required to physically come to the clinic two to three times a day for injections, which is difficult for people with jobs and a family
- Individuals in the program face less overdose risk because the drug is not cut with any unknown agents as it commonly comes on the street and they’re in a medically monitored situation while it’s being administered
- Users stay healthier, which places less of a burden on Canada’s health infrastructure and allows individuals to continue working and contributing to society
- The criminal justice system also catches a break because of the dip in the number of heroin or opioid related crime in program participants
While conservative factions of Trudeau’s government have vocally criticized the new regulations, some cities in the U.S. hit hard by the opioid crisis are paying close attention.
Will the United States Legalize Heroin?
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray recently toured Insite, a “safe injection” facility in Vancouver where heroin users can take drugs they bought on street under medical supervision.
In operation for 13 years, Insite has intervened in an estimated 5,000 overdoses at its location and has not had a single fatality.
Seattle is currently considering two different “safe injection” sites, according to Mynorthwest.com and the mayor, at least, seems enthusiastic about implementing more harm reduction policies.
“Visiting Insite was eye-opening,” the mayor writes in a blog post, “and it reinforced our need to do what the science tells us to do when it comes to addressing the national crisis of addiction.”
Some experts, like Daniel Raymond of Harm Reduction New York, see very little difference between administering pharmaceutical heroin and medically assisted treatments such as methadone.
There is a growing realization that harm reduction techniques, which countries that ended their war on drugs employ in some fashion, are far more effective in addressing addiction.
According to Raymond, health experts are starting to understand that asking, what he calls, “a small subset of people,” to just stop taking drugs is not realistic.
“There may be some people who have accumulated a lifetime of trauma,” he tells ABC News. “For them, ‘Stability is a goal in and of itself.'”