Opinion: Has the time come for a new approach to addiction in Chilliwack?

Vancouver's Insite clinic
— image credit: Black Press File

The bold suggestion by a Chilliwack emergency physician to provide prescription heroin and a safe place to consume opiates sparked much discussion last week.

However, the suggestion by Dr. Marc Greidanus is nothing new.

Public health experts have long cited the benefits of controlled access to the drug – a move endorsed by the federal government late last year.

The reasons are twofold.

First it saves lives. It lessens the potential that an addicted drug user will consume often lethal street-level opiates – drugs that have been responsible for killing more than 800 people in the past year.

It also provides health professionals a better avenue to provide support, education and intervention to end their drug dependency.

Second, it reduces some of the unfortunate consequences of drug addiction: crime, prostitution, homelessness, etc. It does this by providing safe access to the drug, thereby eliminating the need to acquire it through illegal means.

Both these reasons draw little sympathy from some. They argue that our overburdened health care system should not be called upon to support addicts.

However, it is for this very reason that Dr. Greidanus says safe consumption sites are needed.

He says emergency departments throughout the Lower Mainland are being swamped. Those people who don’t die on the street are choking the medical system and diverting care from other medical emergencies.

There is precedent. The Crosstown Clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver has been providing diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, the active ingredient in heroin, for more than a decade.

Clinical trials have shown that the practice has helped people break their addiction and return to normal lives.

It is a radical approach, but one that is drawing increasing attention as the death toll from overdoses continues to mount.

The key is counselling and intervention. And if providing access to the drug can facilitate that interaction, it is worth talking about.

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