Next fall, for the first time since it was banned in 1955, heroin will become legally available as a painkiller for selected groups of terminal cancer patients in clinical trials across the country. Canadian authorities initially prohibited the medical administration of the drug at the request of the World Health Organization (WHO) in an effort to thwart the illegal worldwide heroin trade. Last week federal Health Minister Monique Bégin announced that the trials will last 12 to 18 months and take place under government supervision in an undisclosed number of cancer treatment centres. The results will feed into the Expert Advisory Committee on the Management of Severe Pain, a cross-Canada group of 12 doctors set up last fall.
However, some doctors feel that the committee need only study the experience of 36 countries, including Britain, where the medical use of heroin is legal. “Clinical trials have been going on in Britain for 80 years,” says Dr. Kenneth Walker, a Toronto physician and syndicated columnist known as Dr. W. Gifford-Jones. He leads a campaign to legalize heroin for medical purposes. Medical use of the drug, which is 2xh times more potent than morphine, has increased threefold during the past 15 years in Britain, while the use of morphine has dropped by half. “There is a Calvinistic attitude in force here,” says Walker. “But if you are dying, what is wrong with a little pleasure?”
The Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists have both taken stands against the medical use of heroin. The CCS claims that it is not superior to drugs already available. The most potent is liquid morphine now used in a preparation called a “Brompton cocktail.” Pharmacists have voiced fears that hospitals would become break-and-enter targets for heroin addicts.
In an effort to change the status quo, Walker presented Bégin with 15,000 letters supporting his campaign last July, and a foundation that he established in April has already attracted $25,000 in donations. He says some donors are so angry that cancer patients may be missing out on the ultimate painkiller that they have diverted contributions originally bound for the Canadian Cancer Society to Walker’s campaign.
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