Canadian health officials are hoping that heroin addicts, freed from their daily pursuit of the next fix by a prescription-heroin plan, will find time to make positive changes in their lives.
The researcher will begin gathering applications for the program from addicts during the next few weeks. The experiment already is the talk of the streets in communities like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“They should have done this a long time ago,” said Debbie Woelke, a heroin user living in a single-room occupancy hotel in the city’s poorest neighbourhood. “Sometimes you need something just to relax and get your mind together, instead of always being in a state of panic. That’s what’s killing everyone down here. They have to do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
The prescription heroin trial will take place in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Researchers are looking to recruit 428 hard-core addicts, half of whom will receive daily doses of heroin for a year, and half of whom will get methadone.
“What if you could say to an addict, ‘For the next little while, you’re not going to have to get your drugs from Al Capone. You can get your drugs from Marcus Welby,’ ” said Dr. Martin Schechter, lead researcher on the project. “You don’t have to worry about this afternoon and this evening. And therefore, you don’t have to go and break in to cars or be a prostitute. You could actually come and talk to a counsellor … get some skills training.”
The experiment is unique in North America, although similar trials have been tried with some success in Europe. However, critics range from those concerned about lack of abstinence as a goal to those who say it is unfair to give addicts free heroin for a year and then cut them off. Overdoses also are a major ethical worry.
A spokesperson for U.S. drug czar John Walters called the trial an “inhumane medical experiment.
“What you’re doing is making it easier to be a heroin addict,” said policy analyst David Murray. “These people won’t get that much better in the long run. They will still be heroin addicts.”
But Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, a former coroner and narcotics officer, said current treatments don’t work for hard-core addicts. “The critical thing is to accept this as a medical condition,” he said. “The side effects of this medical condition is that it forces you to … do things that you would never do, be it work as a sex-trade worker, be a B and E [break-and-enter] artist or a purse snatcher. So if I can mitigate that by putting you on heroin, imagine the changes you could have.”