Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary backs prescription-heroin program that Harper tried to shut down

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary has said he supports a prescription-heroin program that remains highly controversial among his party colleagues.

      His position is also in stark contrast to that of Stephen Harper’s government, which was taken to court for attempting to eliminate a Vancouver program that supplies severe addicts with pharmaceutical heroin, or diacetylmorphine, as it’s known.

      On his way into a speaking engagement at the University of British Columbia last night (February 9), O’Leary was asked by a journalist with the UBC-based Cited podcast whether he would similarly attempt to shut the program down if he were elected prime minister.

      “No,” O’Leary replied. “This is a disease. And do I want people using unsterile needles? No, because that just causes AIDS to occur in higher frequency. But at the same time, I’d like to put more resources into helping them kick the habit. Because that is a drug that ends in a bad place for everybody.”

      Since November 2014, Vancouver’s prescription-heroin program has operated out of a clinic in the Downtown Eastside. There, doctors and nurses administer diacetylmorphine or hydromorphone (another narcotic that’s similar to heroin) to a select group of severe addicts who have repeatedly failed to get clean with traditional treatments for an opioid addiction, such as methadone or abstinence.

      The program is legal via the federal Special Access Programme (SAP), which allows doctors to prescribe otherwise-illegal drugs after receiving permission from Health Canada on a case-by-case basis. Former Conservative health minister Rona Ambrose accused Vancouver doctors of abusing the SAP to prescribe heroin via a “loophole”. She subsequently revised regulations to shut it down. After the Liberal party took power following the 2015 election, the new health minister, Jane Philpott, reversed Ambrose’s regulation change.

      O’Leary is a Canadian entrepreneur best known for his appearances on Shark Tank, a reality television show where people pitch business ideas. His bombastic style has led some commentators to compare him to U.S. president Donald Trump.

      At UBC, O’Leary’s initial focus on clean needles prompted the journalist to clarify his question.

      “This isn’t Insite, which provides safe injection and clean supplies,” Kim said to O’Leary. “They are actually providing heroin with taxpayer money from the government.”

      O’Leary said he understood.

      “It is part of a program to help people get off heroin,” he explained. “That’s the whole idea. The whole idea is you have compassion for people and you try and help them get healthy. I’m all for that. Who isn’t? But at the same time, the controversies come around the idea of providing safe needles. And the reason we do that is to try and stop AIDS from spreading. But we need to spend more money and rehabilitating people so they don’t want to do drugs in the first place. Not that drug.”

      At Crosstown Clinic in the Downtown Eastside, Dr. Scott MacDonald oversees patients with severe addictions who are given prescription heroin and hydromorphone to stabilize their lives.
      Travis Lupick

      The exchange ended with O’Leary restating he would not interfere with the health-care initative.

      “I don’t want to cut funding to that program.” (Funding is actually provided by the provincial government via Providence Health Care, but O’Leary’s words can be interpreted as at least tacit support.)

      B.C. health officials are increasingly discussing prescription heroin as a tool that can be used to help manage the fentanyl problem and decrease the number of overdose deaths that have risen so sharply in recent years.

      In 2016, there were 914 fatal overdoses in B.C., up from 510 the previous year and 366 in 2014. Last year, the synthetic opioid fentanyl was associated with about 60 percent of drug-overdose deaths.

      Except for O’Leary, Conservative politicians have followed Ambrose’s lead and criticized any measure that could be viewed as a step toward the legalization of hard drugs.

      On January 26, Bob Saroya, Conservative MP for Markham-Unionville, for example, took to Twitter to criticize a Liberal opponent’s suggestion that Canada should consider decriminalizing drugs.

      This week (February 8), the Straight reported that the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, Dr. Hedy Fry, said it’s time for Canada to begin a conversation about legalizing heroin and bringing the drug’s supply under the regulations of government.

      “This is the discourse that we must have now,” Fry said. “Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’ ”

      Her remarks followed those of Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, who in January told the Straight he similarly wants an open debate about legalizing hard drugs in response to the fentanyl crisis.

      “I think we are at the point, as a country, where we can start opening a dialogue about finding a better method of distributing drugs, legally, to those who are addicted to them so that we can avoid the unnecessary death, destruction, and crime that is so clearly associated with the current model [prohibition],” Davies said. “I am in favour of starting that dialogue.”

      The Conservative Party of Canada is scheduled to elect a new leader this May.

      The list of candidates vying for the job includes two politicians from British Columbia. Those are Rick Peterson and Andrew Saxton.