British Columbia

Prescription heroin offered in Vancouver outside of clinical trial for 1st time

Vancouver has become the first city in North America where prescription heroin is offered to addicts outside of a clinical trial.

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Vancouver has become the first city in North America where prescription heroin is offered to addicts outside of a clinical trial.

For more than a year, doctors at Providence Health Care have been battling with federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose over the right to continue prescribing heroin to patients who had finished being part of a clinical research trial.

In May, the doctors won an injunction at B.C. Supreme Court, allowing them to receive prescription heroin through Health Canada and supply the drug to 120 of the severely addicted people who were previously part of the trial.

Now, doctors at the Crosstown Clinic — located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and run by Providence Health Care — have received their first batch of prescription heroin produced in a lab in Switzerland. They were to begin dispensing the drug today.

It's the first time in North America that a clinic has been able to dispense heroin outside of a trial, a spokesman for Providence Health Care hold CBC News today.

Dr. Scott MacDonald, who runs the Crosstown Clinic, said the first patients to receive prescription heroin outside of a clinical trial will be a small number of people who took part in his two research trials, and want to remain under medical care.

"It is very dangerous and life destroying to have to ingest in an alley, to use illicit heroin three, four times a day. That destroys lives. This is an alternative," he said.

MacDonald says some patients who took part in the trials have been able to reconnect with families and bring stability back to their lives, instead of shooting up in alleyways three or four times a day.

"I think all the clinicians at the clinic have seen the great beneficial effect that this treatment can have on people — hard-to-reach populations that may have been using on the streets for 15, 20, 25 even 30 years," he said.

"There is a small percentage of people who aren't engaged in treatment with methadone, the standard treatments. We don't have enough options for them. This is one option, and we need it here in Vancouver."

MacDonald said about 120 patients will be able to access the heroin at his clinic today, and he has applied to have a further 30 to 40 people be able to access the drug.

All of the patients must use the drug under the care of a doctor, at the Crosstown Clinic, and cannot take the heroin to use somewhere else, MacDonald said.    

With files from CBC's On the Coast