MONTREAL - Giving hardcore heroin addicts their daily fix of heroin works better than methadone - but no better than a prescription pain killer.
Results of a groundbreaking Canadian study released Friday showed sharp benefits for drug users and society.
Researchers for the North American Opiate Medication Initiative, a randomized clinical trial targeting heroin addicts, found that involvement in criminal activity and illicit heroin use dropped by as much as 70 per cent.
Participants also improved their physical and mental health by 27 per cent.
"It demonstrated that opioid-assisted therapy is a very effective treatment," said Suzanne Brissette, one of the study's doctors and the lead investigator in Montreal.
Funded by an $8.1-million research grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the study focussed on harm reduction in people considered "untreatable."
It looked at 250 people in Montreal and Vancouver so severely addicted that most resorted to crime and prostitution to pay for their street drugs.
Researchers wanted to see if providing free drugs would keep users from turning to crime, and let them instead focus on stabilizing their lives.
"Heroin addiction is like any other chronic disease. You don't cure it. You have to take medication usually for the rest of your life," said Brissette, one of the study's doctors and the lead investigator in Montreal.
The study provided addicts with free, medically prescribed pharmaceutical-grade narcotics - either methadone, heroin, or hydromorphone (a painkiller known as Dilaudid.) It was a double-blind study, meaning neither participants nor researchers knew who was taking what.
"No one knew what was in the syringe - heroine or Dilaudid," Brissette said.
A key finding suggests that Dilaudid could be just as effective as heroin and a good alternative for those who do not respond to methadone, she said.
But further research is needed before Dilaudid is made available as therapy, Brissette said.
An untreated heroin addict costs Canada an estimated $45,000 a year in public health care, criminal justice and welfare.
It's already known that treating addiction costs less then relapse. But how much less? An economic study is pending, Brissette said.
Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc recently revoked a decision to open a supervised injection site in Montreal for drug users. The reversal came after federal health minister Tony Clement criticised Canada's only safe-injection site in Vancouver, arguing that it's unethical to let drug addicts shoot up.
Published: Friday, October 17