Health Canada Supports Use of Prescription Heroin to Treat Addiction

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Canada’s national health agency -- Health Canada – is supporting efforts to expand the use of pharmaceutical-grade heroin in treating opioid addiction.

A treatment center in Vancouver, BC is currently the only clinic in North America that provides diacetylmorphine -- prescription heroin – to opioid addicts. Other clinics may soon follow, after last month’s publication of the first clinical guideline for using injectable diacetylmorphine and hydromorphone to treat people with severe opioid use disorder.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe for any purpose. But pharmaceutical grade heroin is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries, where studies have found it is an effective way of treating — or at least managing — opioid addiction.

In a statement to PNN, Health Canada said it supports using diacetylmorphine to help create a safe drug supply for addicts who use dangerous street drugs and have failed at other forms of treatment.

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“Many stakeholders have been calling for a secure and predictable supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids as an alternative to the contaminated illegal drug supply. Studies have shown that prescription opioids, such as injectable hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine (prescription-grade heroin), have been successful in helping to stabilize and support the health of some patients with opioid use disorder,” said Jennifer Novak, Executive Director of Health Canada’s Opioid Response Team.

“Health Canada has taken steps towards this objective, including making prescription opioids used in the treatment of severe opioid disorder more easily accessible to healthcare practitioners, reducing regulatory barriers, funding guidelines for opioid use disorder treatment, and supporting safe supply pilot projects in British Columbia.”

Pain patients and their advocates bristle at Health Canada’s willingness to liberalize the use of heroin to treat addiction – while it supports policies that limit access to opioid pain medication.

"While it's necessary to make every effort to keep those suffering from substance abuse alive, why has this come at the cost of pain patients' lives? Health Canada blamed these patients for overdose deaths they played no part in and consequently they can no longer access their necessary medicine. The most severe have been sent spiraling back into more suffering, disability, suicide, and to purchase street drugs out of sheer desperation,” says Ann Marie Gaudon, a PNN columnist, pain patient and advocate. 

“Health Canada acts like a hero trying to save those addicted while simultaneously refusing to admit that they have indeed added to the death toll by adding pain patients. Where is their help? It is nowhere to be seen in the homes of Canada." 

Nearly 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain and Canada has the second highest rate of opioid prescribing in the world.   

In an effort to reduce the supply of prescription opioids, Canada adopted an opioid guideline in 2017 that is very similar to one released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a year earlier. Both guidelines have had a negligible impact on the overdose rate, while pain patients on both sides of the border lost access to opioid medication or had their doses reduced to ineffective levels.

“Health Canada recognizes that some people who live with chronic pain have been unable to access opioid medications when needed to manage their pain,” Novak said. “We know that opioid medications are an important tool in the management of pain for some Canadians and are working with stakeholders and partners to promote opioid prescribing practices that balance the benefits and harms of these medications based on the individual needs of each patient.” 

Asked what Health Canada is doing to improve healthcare for pain patients, Novak said the agency was providing $3 million in funding to improve education in pain management for physicians, nurses, pharmacists and social workers.  

Three million dollars is a tiny fraction of the $253 billion spent on healthcare in Canada in 2018.

"It's a pittance but the very sad part is that it's all going right back into the same people and programs that made this whole mess to begin with,” says Gaudon. “Nothing new, no help on the horizon for those whose lives have been shattered. They talk as if they are doing something but they truly are not. It's pure rubbish."

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.

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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.”