Vancouver will offer drugs to addicts in an attempt to help them get clean.
TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- On a warm, rainy Saturday morning, Debbie Woelke stops pushing her shopping cart long enough to discus the pros and cons of a plan to give free heroin to drug addicts in Canada's poorest neighborhood.
The heroin trial is all the talk of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Woelke, 48, thinks it's a good idea. She might even apply herself. "They should have done this a long time ago," she said leaning on her cart, which contains all her worldly belongings -- not groceries.
Like many addicts, Woelke lives in a bleak rented room in a residential hotel. Far better to be outside in the rain, even if it means wheeling around your clothes all day.
"Sometimes you need something just to relax and get your mind together, instead of always being in a state of panic. That's what's killing everyone down here," she said, pointing to the throngs of bedraggled souls shuffling along East Hastings Street. Like Woelke, they must hit the pavement every day to raise enough cash for their drugs. Most steal. Many women work as prostitutes.
"They have to do things they wouldn't normally do."
This is exactly what some of Canada's top addiction experts want to find out when they begin the first heroin prescription trial in North America.
If heroin addicts are freed of their daily chase for drugs, if it is given to them three times a day like medicine, can they change their lives for the better?
In a couple of weeks, the research team will begin taking applications here in Vancouver and later in Toronto and Montreal from addicts who want to be part of the study.
Researchers are looking for hard-core addicts, people who have tried and failed at least twice to get clean. In the three cities, there are spots for 428 addicts, roughly half of whom will receive heroin for a year; the other half will receive methadone, an artificial opiate that controls the cravings for heroin.
In Vancouver, the trials are causing a stir on the syringe-littered streets of the city's skid row, home to more than 4,000 drug users. Among those who deal first hand with these chaotic lives, there's a feeling that Canada is breaking new ground in how it treats the most intractable of drug addictions.
Similar studies in the Netherlands and Switzerland have shown positive results for addicts.
"What if you could say to an addict, 'For the next little while, you're not going to have to get your drugs from Al Capone. You can get your drugs from Marcus Welby,'" said Dr. Martin Schechter, the project's lead researcher.
"You don't have to worry about this afternoon and this evening. And therefore, you don't have to go and break in to cars or be a prostitute. You could actually come and talk to a counselor or ... get some skills training."
Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of free heroin for hard-core addicts. And even supporters have expressed concern about the ethics of offering heroin to addicts for a prescribed period of time.