B.C. health minister voices support for doctors' access to prescription heroin for severe addicts

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      B.C.’s outgoing health minister has voiced support for a regulatory change by Health Canada that allows doctors to offer prescription heroin as a method of treatment for a severe addiction to opioids.

      “I’m happy to see this,” Terry Lake said. “It indicates a willingness on behalf of the federal government to look at addictions as a health-based kind of an issue rather than a criminal-based issue. And that they are not limiting the range of treatment options that are available. Because there isn’t one size that fits all in these situations.”

      Lake was interviewed on September 7 by Shane Woodford, a former Vancouver journalist who recently left CKNW to take the position of news director at Kamloop’s Radio NL.

      Earlier that day, Health Canada implemented a change to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that permits doctors to apply under the federal special-access program to write a prescription for diacetylmorphine, the pharmaceutical term for heroin. The legislative change is not entirely new, but rather a return to old rules that existed before the former Conservative administration banned doctors’ access to diacetylmorphine in October 2013.

      Lake stressed that the treatment is not for everyone.

      “This, obviously, is reserved for people that have tried other forms of addiction treatment but have not been successful,” he explained. “And I think we need every single tool to fight this terrible problem that we have with addictions.”

      Since December 2014, 110 Vancouver residents have received prescription heroin as part of the terms of a court injunction. The September 7 regulatory change by Health Canada allows doctors to prescribe heroin to patients beyond that select group. Lake’s point about restricting heroin-assisted treatment to a relatively small population is supported by a look at that group of 110 Vancouver patients. The average length of time each of them has been addicted to opioids is 26.6 years. The average number of times they failed with a traditional treatment is 11.4. (For further background on how heroin-assisted treatment has worked in Vancouver, read the Straight’s March 2014 story “Vancouver prescription heroin users wage court battle with the feds”.)

      On September 1, Lake announced that he will not seek reelection in Kamloops–North Thompson in the 2017 provincial election.

      During the September 7 interview, he placed the move by Health Canada in the context of what he called an “opioid epidemic”.

      According to the B.C. Coroners Service, there were 371 illicit drug-overdose deaths in B.C. during the first six months of 2016. That’s a 74.2-percent increase over the same period during the previous year. A dangerous synthetic opioid called fentanyl has been detected in approximately 60 percent of fatal overdoses in 2016. That’s up from 31 percent in 2015, 25 percent in 2014, 15 percent in 2013, and five percent in 2012.

      “Given the opioid epidemic that we’re facing, we need every single tool available,” Lake said. “And for some people, the prescription heroin, diacetylmorphine, is an important tool and can return them to a more normal life, make them more productive, and keep them healthier. And so I am really happy to see this change in attitude.”

      Later in the interview, Lake compared the new Liberal government’s approach to health care under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Health Minister Jane Philpott with that of their predecessors, Stephen Harper and Rona Ambrose. Lake noted the two administrations especially differ on harm reduction, a group of policies that includes such programs as needle distribution and supervised-injection sites for drug users.

      “It is a different tone, that is for sure,” Lake said. “It is a different kind of attitude, a positive attitude that is evidence-based.

      “We need to not limit ourselves and we need to keep our minds open,” Lake continued. “We know that the war on drugs has largely failed over the last 50 years, and so we do need different options available to help people regain control of their lives.”

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