Ottawa making it easier for doctors to prescribe methadone and heroin

The federal government is taking steps to make it easier for doctors to prescribe methadone and pharmaceutical grade heroin.

Changes are meant to make it less difficult for people with addictions get treatment

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor speaks during an announcement on funding for the opioid crisis, as Liberal MP for Ottawa-Vanier Mona Fortier looks on, in Ottawa on Monday. The government is making it easier for patients to access prescription heroin and methadone in its fight against the opioid crisis. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The federal government is taking steps to make it easier for doctors to prescribe methadone and pharmaceutical grade heroin.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor made the announcement Monday morning in Ottawa at the Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless shelter that offers programs to drug addicts.

"The changes we've announced today will allow health care practitioners to prescribe and administer methadone treatment without needing to apply for an exemption from federal law," Taylor said.

"We are doing so because the need to apply for an exemption to provide or prescribe methadone discourages many family physicians and general practitioners from offering treatment as a service."

​Right now, health care providers such as physicians and pharmacists must apply for an exemption from the Controlled Drug and Substance Act to prescribe, sell or provide methadone with approval from Health Canada.

Now, the federal government will introduce regulatory amendments to lift this requirement and allow health care providers to administer methadone without an exemption.

Petitpas Taylor said the opioid file was the first file she was briefed on when she took office and it remains the only file that keeps her up at night.

"There is no silver bullet solution to effectively deal with what is a situation that is happening on the ground," she said.

"Just in 2016 there were over 2,900 deaths and projections from the data to be released tomorrow suggest that there will be more than 4,000 deaths in 2017."

Petitpas Taylor said she hopes the change will have the effect of standardizing methadone and prescription heroin as a treatment for opioid addiction.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announces regulatory changes making it easier for doctors to prescribe heroin and methadone 0:14

Daniel Davidson, a front line worker for the Shepherds of Good Hope who works in the supervised injection trailer, welcomed the move as a positive step forward for the federal government.

"Its a good service for people who might not know where to get that information from. They can just go to their family doctor, which will make it a lot easier for them to access methadone, to access proper health care for their addiction," he said.

"They might feel worried or ashamed to go someplace new. It might be easier to them to talk to a familiar face, somebody who knows them well and what might work for them."

The move was welcomed also by Ricky Belanger, a person with an addiction who has been in an opioid management program for seven months. She receives prescription drugs to manage her addiction.

She said that since she started the program she has stopped using street drugs, which she feared could kill her.

"It saved my life. Since I've done that program there is no overdose, I don't do drugs, I follow my program," she said. 

Regulatory changes

The federal government is also planning to loosen restrictions around how to, and who can, prescribe pharmaceutical heroin, or diacetylmorphine, a drug used to treat pain in a hospital setting.

But it has also been known to help people with addictions who do not respond to other types of treatment, such as methadone and suboxone.

Currently, diacetylmorphine can only be administered in a hospital. People with addictions who may need more than one dose a day find it difficult to make several trips to a hospital, especially if they are working.

The federal government plans to introduce changes to the regulations that will allow heroin to be prescribed outside of a hospital, perhaps in treatment facilities or substance use disorder clinics.

The changes will also allow nurse practitioners to prescribe the drug if they are allowed to under provincial laws.

Funding the opioid crisis

During her stop in Ottawa, Petitpas Taylor also announced $18 million to fund substance abuse and addictions projects and research programs. The projects will explore drug checking in supervised consumption sites, opioid use in pain management and how opioid-related treatment can better address the needs of women.

The Liberals' 2018 budget committed  $231.4 million over five years to fight the opioid crisis that has already claimed thousands of lives. That chunk includes a $150-million emergency fund for provinces to launch treatment programs, a $18.7-million education campaign to fight stigma and $31.6 million to border officers intercept fentanyl at the border.

The budget also has set aside money for First Nations communities to address substance abuse, including opioids.

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