Canada is making it easier for health authorities to import prescription heroin in bulk as a way to help combat the deadly overdose crisis.
Injectable prescription heroin — officially known as diacetylmorphine — is not licensed for production anywhere in North America. Under the new rules it, as well as other medications that aren’t authorized domestically, will be more readily available to users under a special government program, though the drug can only be administered through hospitals, which can include certain clinics.
“The big trigger for making this change was the opioid overdose crisis and we recognize that certain medications that are necessary for treatment of problematic substance abuse were difficult to access,” Jane Philpott, the federal health minister, told VICE News in an interview on Friday.
“We hope that it [the proposal] will make it more accessible.”
Currently only a small number of patients with opioid addictions in Vancouver receive doses of the drug through an onerous special federal exemptions process that allows the Crosstown Clinic to import it from a company in Switzerland. That prescription heroin program has helped dozens of people who haven’t responded to other addictions methods control their cravings and stay away from the illicit street supply that has become increasingly contaminated with fentanyl.
Health Canada’s new proposal, released quietly via press release on Friday afternoon, would ease the current regulatory barriers, allowing public health authorities to import it, and doctors through hospitals across the country to prescribe diamorphine on a greater scale. Once a public health authority, like a provincial health officer, obtains permission to import the drug in bulk, that will be valid for one year, after which point the request will have to be resubmitted.
The plan would also extend access to other treatments needed for other public health emergencies.
“This regulatory change is related to any medication that we want to be able to import in bulk on the basis of an emergency situation,” Philpott said.
Philpott added that in the case of prescription heroin, it would still fall under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and therefore would still be subjected to other restrictions once in Canada.
“We hope that it [the proposal] will make it more accessible and clearly will continue to be requiring the participation of a physician who can confirm that a patient requires this medication,” she said.
Thousands of people across Canada have died from opioid-related overdoses, especially as a result street drugs contaminated with fentanyl and its deadlier cousin carfentanil. British Columbia declared a public health emergency more than a year ago, and is on pace to see a record number of overdose deaths by the end of this year. A study released this week further confirmed that the crisis has hit Ontario — with an average of two people dying of opioid overdoses every day. Ontario’s official overdose death data continues to be two years out of date.
Health jurisdictions outside of Vancouver and in the U.S. have long resisted it.
Last year, Health Canada amended regulations so that doctors could prescribe pharmaceutical-grade heroin to patients with chronic opioid addictions, joining other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, which has more than 20 clinics that supervise patients inject the drug. However, it has until now been nearly impossible for doctors in Canada to access the drug, which also must be transported, secured, and stored in a very specific ways.
Even though results from prescription heroin studies in Vancouver and Europe show that diamorphine can be more effective than other more conventional medications like methadone and suboxone for a certain type of patient, health jurisdictions outside of Vancouver and in the U.S. have long resisted it.
According to a press release from Health Canada, there will be a 15-day public consultation period on the proposal “because of [its] urgent nature.”