Providence Health Care, Pivot Legal Society, and five patients launched a constitutional challenge today (November 13) in the wake of the federal government’s decision to prohibit the prescription of heroin to people with chronic addictions.
The civil action filed in the B.C. Supreme Court seeks a declaration that the revised federal regulations infringe on the Charter rights of the patients and are unconstitutional.
“We listened to the voices of our clients who were concerned and disappointed and afraid when learning that the federal government was cutting off access to this important, life-saving, proven medical treatment,” said Pivot Legal Society lawyer Scott Bernstein, who is representing the five patients. “We knew we had to take action.”
Health Canada had previously approved 21 applications for heroin-assisted treatment under the Special Access Programme for people exiting the SALOME research study.
On October 3, federal health minister Rona Ambrose changed federal regulations to make diacetylmorphine, or prescription heroin, a restricted substance under the Food and Drug Act.
When Ambrose announced the revised regulations, she said the Special Access Programme provides emergency access to life-saving medicine, and was “never intended to provide heroin to addicts”.
The SALOME clinical study has been testing alternative treatments, including prescription heroin, for people with chronic heroin addiction who are not responding to other treatment, like methadone.
“This is a safe, effective treatment,” said Scott MacDonald, an addictions physician at the Crosstown Clinic, where the clinical study is taking place. “Access to health care is a right in Canada, and my patients need access to it, or they’re going to die. And not only will they benefit, society will benefit.”
Larry Love, one of the plaintiffs in the court challenge, said he has been using drugs for 47 years, and has been in and out of treatment centres multiple times. He told reporters his health and well-being “vastly improved” as part of the SALOME study.
“We are running this legal challenge to save our lives and the lives of others,” he said.
Dave Murray, another plaintiff in the case, said he’s worried about what will happen in the future. He completed the SALOME study about a month ago and said the oral medication he has been prescribed since has not been very effective.
“It’s kind of tough when these studies end because you have a big habit so you have to resort back to street drugs, which is not something that we wanted to do,” he said.
MacDonald noted that several European countries have adopted heroin-assisted treatment, including Switzerland and Germany. Six studies similar to the SALOME research have supported the effectiveness of prescription heroin for chronic addicts, according to Providence Health Care.
“Patients requiring diacetylmorphine are extremely vulnerable,” said Dianne Doyle, the president and CEO of Providence Health Care.
“They have tried multiple other options. Those options have not been effective for them…heroin-assisted treatment is a proven treatment option and the last resort for individuals for whom no other treatment option is effective.”
According to MacDonald, those people make up at most 10 percent of the heroin-addicted population. He noted that about half of patients who are treated with heroin are able to transition onto other methods of treatment.
“If you have tried all the treatment and continued to use illicit heroin, even if you use heroin for 5, 10, 15, even 40 years, have hope: it is possible to achieve health and stability, it is possible to stop the cycle of crime you must repeat every day to get your fix,” said MacDonald.
“I need this tool in the addiction tool kit to help the people with this severe life-threatening illness. As a human being, as a Canadian, as a doctor, I want to be able to offer this treatment to the people who need it.”