Late last week Health Canada quietly removed a federal prohibition on prescription heroin. This means hospitals and hospital outreach facilities can once again legally prescribe heroin. Of course, this can only happen, under controlled settings and with special federal permission, for people in chronic pain and for people with chronic illnesses. And prescription heroin is not for everyone facing addiction. But this legal change acknowledges that the War on Drugs / “Just Say No” approach to addiction has not worked for all. Board members and staff of the InnerChange Foundation from across the political spectrum have advocated for this removal since 2007.
Perhaps you have never faced an addiction yourself, and no one in your circle of family and friends has ever faced one. If so, you might think this change will make little difference to the average Canadian. But that’s not the case.
Instead, the removal is a hopeful sign. It suggests a government truly willing to reduce the costs –both human and financial—of addiction in more pragmatic and cost-effective ways. Why does this matter? Because it expands treatment and recovery options for people with chronic and severe addictions. Individuals with chronic addictions are real people whose lives matter. Unfortunately, they also tend to be more inclined to need emergency room care.
More consistent, targeted access to the right type of care could have prevented such visits. They tend to grow when people with chronic illnesses do not get the help they need early on, and then face more acute (and costly) manifestations of their illness. For our health care system to thrive, we need to do more to intervene early with a range of chronic conditions, at less costly stages.
Prescription heroin is not the answer for everyone with an addiction. But it is one of several tools now available to qualified healthcare professionals, with the appropriate checks and balances, to help those people who have run out of options. In a context where British Columbia is facing an overdose epidemic, aided by the proliferation of cheap and extremely potent drugs like fentanyl, having more tools is better than fewer.
The InnerChange Foundation helped support some of the ground-breaking research confirming the value of prescription heroin as well as another alternative, hydromorphone. InnerChange is pleased to see that there has been federal and provincial recognition that these tools can make an important difference for some people.