Heroin addiction is not a recent problem for Vancouver. The city has been a hotspot for heroin use for decades, and although addiction treatment has become more widely available, usage levels are still well beyond that of other major Canadian cities. The successful operation of safe-injection sites such as Insite, has made international headlines; although some criticize the programs permissiveness, others hail the initiative for its progressiveness.
Whatever one’s opinions are on the principles behind the opening of these facilities, there is no refuting the success that they have had in the last ten years.
Although safe injection sites have saved hundreds of lives, and caused many to seek rehabilitation treatment, there are still serious unnecessary dangers present in the consumption of street heroin- even under the watchful eye of professionals. Counterfeit heroin has caused many deaths and continues to be a problem for Vancouver drug users, especially in the downtown east-end. Recently, a counterfeit synthesis called fentanyl has proved to be particularly dangerous; with 100x the strength of morphine, overdoses are not only common, they’re rampant. As Dr. Jane Buxton, head of Harm Reduction at the B.C Centre for Disease Control notes “One of the problems with an unregulated drug is that we don’t know what people are using – and they don’t know either.”
Heroin addicts will sustain their addiction at great financial cost, causing some users to resort to activities that are harmful to both themselves and others in order to procure the necessary funds. Involuntary heroin withdrawal can also be dangerous if not supervised or planned for- especially for those drug users who are homeless. Prescription heroin allows for users to know where their next hit will come from, and make sure that if they are planning to quit they can do so when they are fully prepared, and hopefully supervised. Offering prescription heroin also increases interaction between healthcare professionals and users; a factor which has been shown to be successful in encouraging individuals to seek rehabilitation through the already-operating safe-injection sites. Several European studies on the efficacy of prescription heroin have also indicated that it can lead to a decrease in illicit drug use, and an increase in the general well-being of users.
Many who criticize these programs argue that supporting the addiction of these heroin users is an unnecessary and unethical burden on taxpayers. However, what critics of these programs often miss is that these people who are addicted to illicit substances are often underemployed, or unemployed as a result of the demands that their addiction presents. As inactive economic actors, they currently only burden the economy with their need for increased health care. It is in the best interest of all Canadians both socially and economically to get these people the help that they need, in order to reintegrate them as productive members of our society. I see this as a progressive program which attacks drug use at its source, a far more fruitful strategy than the reactionary, symptom-centric approaches we have seen cause so much harm in the past.
Slowly the conversation of drug abuse is shifting from one of persecution and criminality, to one of compassion and understanding. While heroin may be a cancer to our society, it must be tackled rationally: policy needs to be shaped by the successful precedent set by previous programs rather than moralistic arguments on the elimination of illicit substances. While only time will tell if prescription heroin will have the desired effect, Vancouver health officials should be applauded for their pragmatism and responsiveness in the face of a serious public health crisis.