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BC health minister calls out federal move to ban heroin therapy

[Editor's note: This report comes from iPolitics, a source for independent, non-partisan political scuttlebutt in Canada.]

The B.C. health minister has come out against the federal health minister's decision to ban illicit drugs like heroin from being distributed under the Special Access Program, saying he has concerns about the government's decision.

"There is a bit of a difference of opinion in terms of the approach on this particular subject," said B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake at a press conference.

Lake's statements followed the provincial, territorial, and federal health minister's meeting in Toronto, where the ministers discussed issues ranging from doctor assisted suicide, to long-term health care and prescription drug abuse. Lake said he spoke with federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose about her decision, and will now look for alternatives.

Yesterday, Ambrose introduced new regulations that prevent doctors from prescribing heroin or other illicit drugs like cocaine under Health Canada's Special Access Program. The program allows physicians to request unapproved or discontinued drugs for patients with life-threatening conditions.

Thursday's announcement comes just days after Health Canada approved the use of prescription heroin for five additional B.C. patients, bringing the total number of approved applications to 21. The minister's decision leaves a further 14 addicts in limbo, however, waiting to see how this new policy impacts their requests.

The new regulations will not affect patients who have already been approved through the Special Access Program, but the minister said these individuals will not have their application renewed.

Ambrose's initial protest in September came after a group of B.C. doctors asked Health Canada to allow heroin addicts access to the drug to better transition out of a study program testing what could be a breakthrough drug for heroin addiction.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and B.C.'s Providence Health Care are halfway through a three-year study to determine whether the painkiller hydromorphone is as effective in treating heroin addiction as prescription heroin itself.

"This wasn't an effort to try to open up heroin as a standard treatment by doctors, but simply to transition people from a study that had done very well in the clinician's view of weaning off heroin when they hadn't done well on alternative treatments," said Lake in today's press conference.

The minister's move diminishes hope for members of the medical community who want heroin to be more accessible to addicts, like it is in some European countries. It has been found to be effective in helping addicts wean off the drug and into rehab programs.

Annie Bergeron-Oliver reports for iPolitics, where this article first appeared.

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