Legalize heroin and save lives

January 5, 2017 - 5:00am Updated: January 6, 2017 - 7:42am

KAMLOOPS — Legal opiates are being used to adulterate illegal ones with tragic consequences. More than 800 British Columbians were killed in fentanyl-related overdoses last year. Many of them were ordinary Canadians you might find living next door. My nephew died for the same reason a few years ago.

They injected what they thought was heroin, or some other illegal drug. If they had injected legal heroin, of known purity and strength, they would still be alive. I’m not naive; they would still be addicted but their quest for bliss would not have ended in death.

It’s a question of harm prevention. Legalization of heroin may seem like a radical idea but not long ago so did giving drug addicts clean needles and a safe place to inject.

Like the prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition of drugs has been a dismal failure. Prohibition simply pushes the drug trade underground. When a trade is unregulated, who knows what junk users will end up taking? Drug manufacturers don’t intend to kill users: it’s bad for business to kill your customers. They just want to maximize profits.

Fentanyl is perfectly legal. It’s prescribed by doctors for controlling pain. Fentanyl is just one member of the opium family. It turns out that all of them are addictive.

A brief history of legal opiates is a guide to the intersection of illegal ones. Opium from Persian poppies has been used for pain control since the fourth century. Researchers discovered the active components of opium - morphine, codeine and thebaine - in the 1800s. In an attempt to find a non-addictive painkiller, heroin was derived from morphine. The manufacturer of heroin, Bayer, pulled it from shelves in 1913 once it was found to be addictive.

The Globe and Mail said in a story Dec. 30, 2016 that, in the quest for a non-addictive pain killer, Purdue Canada filed a patent in 1992 for OxyContin, a pill that would treat pain ‘without unacceptable side effects.' The Globe said Purdue encouraged doctors to prescribe the pill and soon it was a blockbuster hit with billions of dollars being made

But OxyContin turned out to have terrible side effects and thousands of Canadians were hooked. Canadians consume more prescription opiates on a per-capita basis than any other country in the world according to a United Nations report.

As in all opiates, those hooked on OxyContin become habituated so that they need more pills to control pain. Purdue attempted to control the problem with the replacement OxyNEO in 2012, a tamper-resistant alternative that is difficult to crush, snort or inject. And that same year, the provinces stopped paying for both opiates.

Both factors drove addicts to the streets to find a fix. Illegal drug manufacturers care not how their clients get hooked, whether it be from the pursuit of bliss or the relief of pain.

Fentanyl is now the universal opiate. Manufactured in China in concentrated form, it can be ordered on the internet and sent through the mail. From there, it is pressed into pills to mimic OxyContin and other opiates.

Making fentanyl illegal is not the solution. Drug abuse is a medical problem, not a criminal one. All opiates should be legalized and safe doses prescribed. Education, as in tobacco and alcohol abuse, is the only solution.

Eyeview
By David Charbonneau
Image Credit: Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS

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