British Columbia is opposed to a move by the federal government to stop doctors from prescribing heroin, arguing that addicts should have access to unorthodox treatments in the name of scientific research.
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake delivered this message to his federal counterpart, Rona Ambrose, at a ministers' meeting in Toronto Friday, a day after Ms. Ambrose announced she would stop doctors from prescribing illicit drugs under the Special Access Programme.
The program, which allows doctors to obtain unapproved drugs to treat rare diseases, was used last month in B.C. to get heroin for a group of addicts for whom conventional treatments had failed. Those addicts will be allowed to finish their course of treatment, but no one else will be allowed to get such drugs as heroin, cocaine or LSD under the program.
Mr. Lake said Friday that he disagreed with the federal government's decision.
"We're reluctant to close the door on innovation and creativity when it comes to tackling these very challenging problems. We have to think out of the box sometimes," he said at a Toronto hotel after the health ministers' meeting. "I know that the thought of using heroin as a treatment is scary for people, but I think we have to take the emotions out of it and let science inform the discussion. And in this case, I believe this was an exceptional circumstance, compassionate use of a medication to help people transition, and provides information as to treatments that may in fact prove better than alternatives for some people."
Ms. Ambrose said there is not enough scientific evidence that heroin is a safe drug to use in treating addiction and that other treatments should be used instead.
"The clinical trial that is underway is looking to see if there are safe alternatives. There are, right now, three different safe alternatives to using actual heroin. That clinical trial has not finished," she said Friday. "We do not have the evidence that it is a safe alternative and so we do not believe that it's, at this time, the proper treatment."
She also called for broader measures to help addicts across the country.
"I feel like the dialogue on drug treatment focused on a very, very small portion of people, and in this instance a group of heroin addicts," she said. "But the larger population of people that are addicted are in the hundreds of thousands to millions across this country and we do need…to start having a conversation with those people to make sure they know we're there for them."
Mr. Lake said it is not clear whether there are other means by which doctors could prescribe heroin, now that Special Access has been closed to them, but he said he would see if there was an alternative.
"I would encourage the use of science and not limit the ability of research to explore opportunities that might seem taboo but at the same time provide real help for people that are in a terrible situation," he said.
He said the "difference of opinion" between himself and Ms. Ambrose speaks to a larger disagreement between the two governments on addictions policy. The federal government previously went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to close Insite, a safe injection site in Vancouver that allows people to inject drugs in the presence of medical staff who can intervene in case of an overdose.
"In British Columbia, we've demonstrated the safety and efficacy of using a safe injection site as a harm reduction tool. It has saved lives, it has saved a lot of money for taxpayers," Mr. Lake said. "It's a difference of opinion and as Canadians, that's what we're entitled to have. But British Columbia certainly supports harm reduction strategies that save lives and help save taxpayer money as well."