Canada
3 min

Free heroin on demand?

Study sheds light on drug-treatment innovations

In the face of the Tory assault on harm reduction, a Liberal MP has spoken out in favour of providing free heroin to addicts as part of a treatment plan.

Keith Martin, of BC’s Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca riding, is a physician who’s worked with drug users in detox. Earlier this month, Martin told the west-coast Oak Bay News he thought prescription opiates could be a viable solution for the Victoria BC heroin crisis. He pointed to the ongoing North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) as a potential model.

NAOMI is an $8-million research study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research that provides chronic addicts with pharmaceutical-grade heroin that is self-injected under medical supervision. Over the course of the study, participants also have access to support to find jobs and housing and taper off their drug use.

The program focuses specifically on long-term heroin users who have been unsuccessful with other forms of treatment — and it’s based on the understanding that the high cost of heroin and the dangers associated with overdose can be far more harmful than the actual effects of using the drug safely.

The last of the heroin will be given out in June and the study results should be out by the end of the year, but already anecdotal reports suggest that the NAOMI strategy has had a positive impact on drug users’ lives. Similar studies in European countries have indicated a decrease in drug-related crime and an increase in successfully kicked habits. Let’s hope for more of the same here in Canada.

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Fetal consequences

Regina McKnight spent eight years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. In 2001, McKnight was charged with homicide through child abuse. But the South Carolina woman didn’t kill anyone.

McKnight was pregnant, and her pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. The reason for the murder charge? Traces of a cocaine by-product were detected within her fetal tissue. Her conviction marked the first time the state of South Carolina pressed such charges — but not the last.

But earlier this month, after years of lobbying by National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and legal efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed McKnight’s conviction. According to lawyer Susan K. Dunn, who worked on the case, “current research simply does not support the assumption that prenatal exposure to cocaine results in harm to the fetus.”

The court’s ruling acknowledges that cocaine use is “no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor,” she added. At the time of her arrest, McKnight was homeless and drug-addicted, working a seasonal job on a tobacco farm and coping with the death of her mother, who had been hit by a truck.

If we are really concerned about drug use by pregnant women, let’s take tangible steps to improve the material circumstances of their lives — instead of using voodoo jurisprudence to lock them up. Here in Canada, the Conservative government and spineless Liberal opposition may soon establish fetuses as persons who can be victims of crimes, rather than parts of a woman’s body — through Tory Ken Epp’s Unborn Victims of Crime Act (Bill C-484).

McKnight’s victory south of the border is a timely reminder for Canadians not to take a step in the wrong direction.

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Spitting mad

To quote the longstanding guidelines of the Canadian AIDS Society, “saliva doesn’t transmit HIV.” Someone better tell that to the jury south of the border who are throwing a homeless man in jail for horking on a cop.

Willie Campbell, a 42-year-old homeless man from Dallas, spat in the face of a police officer while being arrested for public intoxication in May 2006. Then he told the officer he was living with HIV.

Campbell was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The jury ordered that Campbell had to serve half that sentence before being eligible for parole — because they found that his saliva had been used as a “deadly weapon.”

Someone needs to be clubbed over the head with a clue phone here. The saliva of people with HIV is not a weapon of any kind, deadly or otherwise. The online news source aidsmap points out that this isn’t the first time a person with HIV has been prosecuted because of the supposedly murderous act of spitting on someone.

This sentence feels like part of a disturbing international backlash against people with HIV — one that ranges from increasing levels of basic ignorance and stigma, to the criminalization of HIV transmission in countries around the world, to the Tory funding squeeze on HIV prevention and support efforts here at home. Just when it seems things can’t get worse, cases like this show how misinformation and miscarriages of justice are sometimes a mere spitting distance away.

Read previous Free Agent columns by Shawn Syms: