Should Heroin Be Used to Treat Addiction?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Some Canadian doctors are using novel approaches to treat opioid addiction, everything from safe injection sites to opioid vending machines to prescription heroin.

A new proposal would take the concept a step further by establishing the first clinical guideline for using hydromorphone and pharmaceutical grade heroin to treat people with severe opioid use disorder. The idea is to provide a safer supply to opioid addicts who currently use illicit heroin, counterfeit pills and other street drugs, which are often laced with fentanyl.

"Offering injectable opioid treatments is an effective way for clinicians to address the toxicity of the fentanyl-adulterated drug supply and help people achieve stability so they can focus on other aspects of their lives to get well, such as housing, employment, and connecting with family," says Dr. Christy Sutherland, Medical Director of PHS Community Services Society in Vancouver, BC.

Sutherland is one of the co-authors of the guideline, which is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In 2018, nearly 4,500 Canadians died from opioid overdoses, with about 75% of the deaths involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s become a scourge on the black market.

"Opioid use disorder is a public health emergency nationwide; unfortunately, resources for the treatment of opioid addiction have been scarce and guidelines outlining best practices for innovative treatments have been lacking. This guideline is a blueprint for health practitioners to step up and provide evidence-based care," says Dr. Nadia Fairbairn, British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe. But pharmaceutical grade heroin (known as diacetylmorphine) is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries.

Studies have found that heroin-assisted treatment is effective in treating opioid addiction in patients who have failed at other treatment methods, such as methadone.

Under the proposed guideline, injectable heroin (diacetylmorphine) and hydromorphone (Dilaudid) could be used to treat severe opioid addiction in patients who do not respond to oral medication or use illicit injectable opioids.

syringe-3322972_640.jpg

It would be up to each Canadian province to decide whether to adopt the guideline.

Pharmaceutical heroin and safe injection sites are controversial issues in the U.S. But a recent analysis by the RAND Corporation advocates their use to combat opioid addiction.

“Given the increasing number of deaths associated with fentanyl and successful use of heroin-assisted treatment abroad, the U.S. should pilot and study this approach in some cities,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. “This is not a silver bullet or first-line treatment. But there is evidence that it helps stabilize the lives of some people who use heroin.”

What About Pain Patients?

Pain patient advocates in Canada were taken aback by the proposal to liberalize the use of heroin to treat opioid addiction. Opioid pain medication is increasingly difficult to obtain in Canada, as it is in the United States, because of restrictive guidelines.

“It is indeed shocking. Pain patients continue to be marginalized, stigmatized, ignored and left to suffer,” said Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada.  “I do think it is ridiculous to say opioid use disorder is a public health emergency. The population they are addressing no doubt has to be addressed, but in terms of numbers it is minuscule to those suffering pain, yet the number of dollars expended for both is just out of whack.

“People suffering pain cannot obtain help or even maintain access to medication they have been stable on for years. Something is sadly wrong. What is a public health emergency is the epidemic of undertreated chronic pain. They should get their blinders off. We have well over 1 million Canadians suffering from high impact pain, yet they are pretty much marginalized.”

One of those Canadians is Dan Wallace, a retired military veteran and police detective who lives with chronic knee and shoulder pain.

“I applaud the efforts made and others that are contemplated for the near future that would allow those who are addicted to obtain legally prescribed heroin that would keep them from the tainted street drug supply,” Wallace said. “Where I have a problem is with the complete dismissal of medical care to the many legacy patients who were previously prescribed opioids to manage their pain.”

Wallace used opioid medication for over 20 years before being tapered. He now has trouble walking and sleeping because of what he calls “a tortuous and cruel degree of pain.”

“I and others like me aren’t looking for a handout of free heroin because we haven’t been able to control ourselves and have become addicts. No one deserves to be treated like throw-away patients yet pain patients are just that. Why is it that their lives matter while simultaneously ours do not?” Wallace asks.

“I have never abused any substance in my life. Does my suffering ever help a single person who will now be getting prescribed heroin so they don’t have to buy illegal street drugs? Health Canada should be deeply ashamed at the needless suffering, disability, and deaths of pain patients they have caused.”