British Columbia

Vancouver clinic first in North America to offer take-home medical-grade heroin

Opening the program to more people is a key step in fighting the province's opioid crisis, says physician.

A safe supply of medical-grade heroin can be a lifeline for those battling opioid addiction

B.C. has been at the forefront of Canada's opioid overdose crisis and health professionals say providing more treatment options will save lives. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The Providence Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver is pioneering a new step in harm reduction by enabling some of its patients to take home medical-grade heroin. 

The program is the first of its kind in North America. 

Dr. Scott MacDonald, the physician lead at the Providence Crosstown Clinic, said the change came about partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some of the patients at the clinic that had COVID-19 were forced to isolate at home or in a hotel. Staff at the clinic, supported by the health authority, were able to deliver diacetylmorphine syringes (medical-grade heroin) to the patients so they could successfully isolate for 10 to 14 days. 

"Having done that and done that successfully without any problems, we were able to show and demonstrate the strict requirement of the medication to only be [administered] at the clinic was not necessary," MacDonald told guest host Bal Brach on CBC's On The Coast. 

MacDonald said allowing patients to take home their doses gives them a greater deal of flexibility — especially for patients who are working and cannot stop by the clinic for another dose during their shift.

"The ability to pick up two doses ... for the day allows people to work and get on with living their lives," he said. 

Around 11 patients are participating in the program, but MacDonald says opening the program to more people is a key step in fighting the province's opioid crisis.

"Their lives can change dramatically. People can go from accessing street opioids, perhaps having unstable housing and unable to work to stabilized and being able to work, and some people working full-time," he said.

More than 1,000 people died of an illicit drug overdose between January and June in B.C., the highest rate ever recorded in the first six months of a calendar year. The B.C. Coroners Service says drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in B.C. for people between 19 and 39 years of age. 

"We need a safe, regulated supply that separates people from the poisoned street supply and expansion of  diacetylmorphine is one thing that needs to happen," said MacDonald. 

"There's an urgent need. We know it's safe. It's clinically effective. It's cost effective. It reduces mortality and also reduces crime. What's not to like?"

With files from On The Coast