Overdose death toll spurs Canada to consider prescribing heroin

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Dismayed by a horrific death toll from drug overdoses, Vancouver authorities are nudging Canada steadily closer to breaking a North American taboo by supplying heroin to addicts.
So far this year, 224 people in British Columbia — mostly from Vancouver’s skid-row areas — have died of overdoses, up 40 percent from last year.
The deaths, blamed on an influx of cheaper and more potent heroin, prompted the provincial health officer, Dr. John Millar, to recommend last month that health workers provide heroin to certain addicts on a trial basis.
The aim would be to reduce the risk of overdose and restore some stability to the addicts’ lives by freeing them from the daily scavaging for money to buy their next fix.
Such programs have been tried on a limited basis in Western Europe, but never in North America. Many experts believe heroin trials are unlikely to take place in the United States anytime soon because of firm opposition among many lawmakers, while Canadian officials and politicians are considered more receptive.
Vancouver’s chief coroner has endorsed the plan. Even the city police chief has expressed cautious interest because of the prospects of reducing addiction-related crime.
The federal health agency, Health Canada, says it would be willing to authorize clinical trials in which doctors could prescribe heroin to addicts.
On Tuesday, a motion was made in parliament urging the federal government to launch such trials immediately.
The most ambitious experiment with prescribed heroin has been in Switzerland, where 1,146 addicts received thrice-daily injections in 1994-1996. The program’s researchers said crimes committed by those addicts dropped sharply, and many were able to find jobs and decent housing.