Pubdate: Sun, 05 Feb 2017
Source: Province, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Tasha McAdam
Page: 27


The overdose crisis, especially in British Columbia, has become an
issue of moral panic, and everyone is paying attention.

The B.C. Coroner's Report for 2016 revealed a shocking number of
deaths from overdose - 914, which far surpassed previous records and
is nearly three times the number of deaths from automobile collisions.
This crisis impacts us all and it requires a radical shift in the ways
all provinces provide health care.

Unfortunately, the human and financial toll continues to rise because
we continue to view illicit substance use as a moral and criminal
issue rather than the healthcare issue it is. As a health-care social
worker on the front line, I am lending my voice to those with
substance-use disorders, the ostracized and overlooked.

The time is now for diacetylmorphine - prescription heroin - to be
available along the continuum of services for those with substance-use
disorders seeking treatment.

In September 2016, Health Canada amended legislation so that any
doctor can apply for the ability to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade
heroin. Despite this, Vancouver's Crosstown Clinic is the only site in
North America offering this service, which allows addicts to inject
medical-grade heroin with clean supplies in a supervised setting.

The costs saved, both financial and social, are monumental. There is
no need for shoplifting or sex-trade work when health care covers the
cost of the substance. The criminal justice system will no longer be
as bogged down by those facing possession or trafficking charges. The
level of transmission and the need to treat HIV and hepatitis declines
when people no longer share needles. The expansion of this service in
B.C. will restore our reputation as innovative health-care strategists
and, more important, save lives.

Vancouver's Four Pillars approach to drug problems highlights
prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement. Each of these
is crucial in putting an end to the opiate crisis; a range of
treatment options is required for different people at various stages
of recovery. Residential treatment and substitution therapy, such as
methadone and suboxone, work for some, but not all. Prescription
heroin needs to be available as a last resort for those who have tried
everything else.

Canada's new drug strategy is on the way, and it will apparently move
drug policy back under the control of the Ministry of Health and away
from the Department of Justice. Under Stephen Harper's government in
2008, a whopping 70 per cent of National Anti-Drug Strategy funding
was allocated to law enforcement. RCMP officers I regularly encounter
on the job are tired of criminalizing people who are desperately
needing help. The Vancouver Police Department is even on board,
stating they support further research on medically prescribed heroin
for users who have not succeeded with methadone maintenance or
abstinence programs.

We need to stop classifying people who use drugs as deviants and make
the best practices in health care available to all.

Physicians, including Vancouver addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Mate,
consider prescription heroin safe for long-term use, especially
compared to legal and readily available substances like cigarettes and
alcohol. Side-effects include not much more than constipation, yet the
use of alcohol and tobacco can lead to the development of cancer and
other chronic illnesses requiring lengthy hospitalizations.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports that in 2011, the
tobacco-related death rate was three times the alcohol-related death
rate, which was three times the illicit drug rate. Those of us who
enjoy relaxing with a glass of wine after a difficult day are not so
different from those who use opiates to cope with emotional or
physical pain. We must compassionately acknowledge our shared humanity.

Allowing addicts to safely access their drug of choice is not
unethical; the denial of evidence-based first-class health care is.
B.C. is in the midst of an overdose crisis and the world is watching.
It is time we prove ourselves as world leaders and make radical changes.

Tasha McAdam is a registered health-care social worker in Kelowna.
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