Alternative medicine takes a step back with announcement from Harper administration
Government to impose regulations on controversial treatment
By Ken Cates, Staff Writer
The Harper government dealt a blow to supporters of alternative medicine. An announcement by health minister Rona Ambrose states that the government would impose regulations denying prescription heroin to long-term addicts involved in a clinical research project in Vancouver.
The clinical trial in question is 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 21 long-term addicts affected by the new regulations were patients that failed to respond to the conventional methadone treatment. The approvals given to participants to access the heroin would not be revoked, though they can’t be renewed after the permits expire in three months.
Less than a year ago, the former health minister Leona Aglukkaq called political interference in the approval process as a “recipe for disaster”. For Ambrose, the implementation of this disaster was necessary to “protect the integrity” of Health Canada’s special access to medication program, by denying doctors the right to prescribe drugs such as heroin, cocaine or LSD.
The program, which provides emergency access to not yet available medicines to patients with “serious or life-threatening conditions when conventional therapies have failed, are unsuitable, or unavailable,” was approved by Health Canada only last week.
Supporters of the trial have argued that the prescription of heroin or hydromorphone keeps addicts involved in the health care system, improves their chances of eventually moving back into society, and sharply reduces the likelihood of their return to back alleys, dirty needles and crime.
Terry Lake, the B.C. minister of health, also disagrees with Ambrose’s stance on the issue. “I know that the thought of using heroin as a treatment is scary for people, but I think we have to take the emotions out of it and let science inform the discussion,” Lake said.
Lake argued that the clinicians’ use of heroin was an “exceptional circumstance,” intended to help people come off the federally funded study. He said the clinicians felt it was unethical to eliminate diacety lmorphine as a transition medication during the evaluation of the study.
Ambrose’s rebuke of the program coincides with the fundraising letter sent by Tory official Fred DeLorey, who stated how appalled he was of the decision to prescribe heroin “against the wishes of the elected government.”
“We’re going to take steps to make sure this never happens again – but we need your help.” The letter goes on, “If the NDP or Liberals are elected in 2015, you can bet they would make this ‘heroin-for-addicts’ program permanent.”
For Lake, the difference in views between himself and Ambrose reflects a bigger difference between the addiction policies of the two governments as British Columbia “certainly supports harm reduction strategies”, as was the case when the government failed to close Insite, a safe injection site allowing people to inject drugs in the presence of medical staff.
Ken Cates has double majored in international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, while currently pursuing a certificate in freelance writing at the schools continuing studies program. Inspired by writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges, Ken writes about religion, politics, ethics, society, and on the little bits of irony surrounding our daily lives.