A Canadian health clinic in Vancouver is set to begin a $6.5 million (U.S.) pilot program that provides free heroin to injection drug users in an attempt to gauge whether government-provided heroin reduces HIV and hepatitis infections, cuts drug overdoses, and reduces crime committed by addicts who often turn to theft to pay for their drugs, Agence France-Presse reports. The program, the first of its kind in North America, is already meeting with stiff opposition from the Bush administration, which says the clinic poses a threat to Americans because it is only 23 miles from the U.S. border. White House officials also called the program an "inhumane medical experiment."
But Canadian officials note that similar programs launched in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain have been successful in reducing overdoses, blood-borne infections, and crime among their participants. Health officials in the United Kingdom plan to launch a similar program later this year. Martin Schechter, an HIV researcher at the University of British Columbia adds that it is not unethical to treat addicts for whom other methods have failed. "They are breaking into cars, being hospitalized, having overdoses, getting hepatitis C and HIV, they're in the sex trade, and they're in rough shape," he told Agence France-Presse.
The pilot program will provide heroin to only hard-core addicts, as defined by being 25 years of age or older, who have used heroin for at least five years, and who have failed methadone replacement therapy at least twice. The program will include up to 88 drug users, who will be given pharmaceutical-grade heroin three times each day; another 70 drug users on methadone replacement therapy will serve as a control group for the study. All participants also will receive counseling and medical care, Schechter says.