Vancouver hosts Canada's first public forum on prescription heroin and harm reduction
Dr. Gabor Maté is one of several prestigious health workers scheduled to speak tomorrow (October 30) at a public forum on prescription heroin.
Scott Bernstein, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, told the Straight that the goal of the panel discussion is to “demystify” medical applications of the drug—which is also known as diacetylmorphine—and introduce a general audience to heroin as an effective means of harm reduction.
“It’s a bit counterintuitive to people; somebody’s addicted to heroin and you’re giving them the thing they're addicted to—that’s a bit counterintuitive,” Bernstein said in a telephone interview. “But ultimately, the reason the treatment works is because it recognizes that a lot of the harm that comes to people who are addicted to heroin is not coming from the drug itself, it is coming from the fact that it’s an illicit substance.”
He explained that for some hard-core users, putting patients on a prescribed dose of heroin is proving the only effective means of bringing people into the health-care system and helping them avoid the health risks that come with using heroin on the street.
Bernstein noted that prescription heroin would only be selected as a treatment for a relatively small number of heroin users; people struggling with severe addictions characterized by many years of abuse and repeated failures with traditional medications such as methadone or suboxone.
“It’s really a last-ditch effort,” he emphasized. “How can we really try and get these people into some kind of medical care? Providing prescription heroin is something that really works.”
Bernstein will sit on the panel alongside Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, Dr. Bruce Alexander, author of Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit, and Dave Murray, who’s involved with an ongoing clinical trial testing the effectiveness of prescribed heroin as a means of harm reduction.
There’s considerable interest in the event, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at SFU Woodward's Djavad Mowafaghian Theatre at 149 West Hastings Street; 350 people signed up to attend the day that registration opened.
“With all this stuff that’s going on with the federal government and these new regulations, there is really a need to have this public discussion and unpack what exactly is this treatment we’re talking about, what it does for people, why we should have it in Canada, and what that would look like,” Berntsein said.
On October 25, the Straight reported that Providence Health Care was examining legal options in response to Health Canada regulatory changes that forbid the prescription of heroin. Delivering an update on where that fight stands, Bernstein said lawyers are looking at possible constitutional challenges and meeting with potential plaintiffs for a legal case.
“We’re working on it,” he said.