I never thought I would see this in my lifetime, but it has truly happened. The Federal Government has made a sane and reasonable and knowledge-based and compassionate decision regarding addictions. Congratulations to Health Minister Rona Ambrose and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Ottawa overrules health officials on Vancouver heroin replacement study
Health Canada had approved prescribing of heroin as part of Vancouver study; new regulations overrule the department
The move was made less than a year after the former federal health minister said political interference in the drug approval process was a “recipe for disaster.”
Health Canada last week approved prescribing heroin to the study participants.
But that decision was overruled by the regulations that Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced Thursday. Meanwhile, the Conservative party has launched a fundraising drive linked to the issue.
“The prime minister and I do not believe we are serving the best interests of those addicted to drugs and those who need our help the most by giving them the drugs they are addicted to,” Ambrose said at a news conference in Toronto.
“The answer of course is not to treat heroin addiction with heroin. … Our goal must be to take heroin out of the hands of addicts. We must focus on treatment and we must focus on recovery.”
The regulations, which took immediate effect, will “protect the integrity” of Health Canada’s special access to medication program by denying doctors the right to use it to provide illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine to patients, she said.
The special access program provides emergency access to medicines not yet available in Canada to doctors treating patients with “serious or life-threatening conditions when conventional therapies have failed, are unsuitable, or unavailable,” according to Health Canada.
Ambrose’s decision relates to 21 participants in a major clinical trial, all chronic long-term addicts who had failed to respond to methadone treatment.
Their approvals to access the heroin won’t be revoked, though they can’t be renewed after the permits expire in three months, according to Scott Bernstein, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver who represents their interests.
The trial was an attempt to determine if hydromorphone, a legal opioid painkiller, can work as an alternative maintenance treatment over diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin.
The study’s proponents say ongoing provision of heroin, or a substitute without heroin’s “emotional and regulatory barriers,” keep addicts involved in the health care system, improve their chances of eventually breaking their habits and/or finding housing or employment, and sharply reduces the likelihood of their return to back alleys, dirty needles and crime.
Ambrose’s rebuke of Health Canada’s approvals coincided with a fundraising letter sent to Tory supporters by party official Fred DeLorey.
“I was shocked to learn today that Health Canada approved applications to give heroin to addicts — against the wishes of our elected government,” he stated. “We’re going to take steps to make sure this never happens again — but we need your help. If the NDP or Liberals are elected in 2015, you can bet they would make this heroin-for-addicts program permanent.”
The government’s approach received a scathing rebuke in Vancouver from the program’s supporters.
“The minister is medically, morally and ethically wrong,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and an internationally prominent advocate for so-called “harm reduction” measures.
“This again falls into a pattern on the part of the federal government of acting based on ideology, while ignoring the science.”
Both Montaner and Bernstein, the Pivot Legal Society lawyer, said the announcement contradicts that of Ambrose’s predecessor less than a year ago.
Then health minister Leona Aglukkaq, in a letter to her provincial and territorial counterparts, rejected a request to delay the approval of generic versions of the highly-addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin, also known as “Hillbilly Heroin.”
“A drug approval process based on politics is a recipe for disaster,” Aglukkaq said.
Bernstein said legal action may be considered to fight the decision. Supporters of harm reduction efforts won a major legal battle when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2011 against the federal government’s bid to shut down Insite, the supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.