Doctors in British Columbia Can Now Prescribe Heroin
British Columbia, Canada, has had a heroin problem for years. Statistics are hard to come by, but in 2008, a former user described use of the drug in the province as an “epidemic,” and a 2010 BBC story called Vancouver, BC’s largest city, the “Drug Central of North America.” But a new strategy in the fight against addiction and the host of societal problems that come with it is emerging: let doctors prescribe addicts heroin so they get the drug they need without resorting to crime. Studies have shown this approach can help many longtime users, but the Canadian gonvernment wants it shut down.
Prescription heroin is used in some European countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, but it’s been a long time coming to North America. The first Canadian study that tested the effectiveness of giving addicts heroin under the supervision of doctors was the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI), which started in 2005. It eventually recruited 251 addicts in Vancouver and Montreal who had unsuccessfully attempted to kick smack numerous times. A control group was given methadone, which is commonly prescribed to heroin addicts so they can wean themselves off hard drugs.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, showed that injectable heroin—known in medical-speak as diacetylmorphine—was a far more effective and efficient treatment than methadone in getting users out of the vicious and costly cycle of crime, infection, overdoses, and hospital visits that are a way of life for those in the grips of long-term, hardcore addiction. Compared to those trying to kick heroin using methadone, participants used street drugs less often, committed fewer crimes, and were employed more often, more connected to their families, and straight-up happier. A “cost of illness” analysis from 2000 found that severely addicted individuals can cost society over $43,000 per year, so getting addicts off the streets and into roles as members of productive society is good for all of Canada.