By Mark Ackerman and Brian Maass
VANCOUVER, BC (CBS4) – Twice a day, every single day of the year, Lori Beer goes to a clinic and injects herself with heroin, provided by and paid for by the Canadian government.
It is an unusual step in the fight against opioid addiction, and one that likely strikes many Coloradans as incomprehensible.
Beer takes the bus an hour each way from her suburban home to the Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver’s lower east side. The clinic is located in an area Canadian health officials call the largest concentration of injection drug users in the world. More than 1,000 people in Vancouver died of opiate overdoses last year.
The Crosstown Clinic is the only drug treatment center of its kind in North America, providing free pharmaceutical heroin to its patients.
“If this place didn’t exist,” Beer said. “I’d be dead.”
Beer is one of about 100 longtime addicts enrolled in the medical heroin program who have been unable to get off opioids any other way, including drug replacement therapies like methadone. The pharmaceutical heroin used in Vancouver is manufactured in Switzerland and then sent to Canada.
She enters the highly secure clinic and states her name and birthdate to a worker inside a protective glass room who prepares her heroin-filled syringe. She then goes to a sterile steel table and quickly injects heroin into her arm.
In the moments following the injection, it was difficult to discern any change in her demeanor.
“I’m just glad I’m not dope sick,” she said. “But at the same time I’m not high.”
Beer started using heroin more than a decade ago. She was depressed from a divorce and moving across the country away from her children. A friend offered her heroin as a way to cope and she quickly got hooked.
She said she was never a street user and most of her friends have no idea heroin is part of her life.
“Do you think anyone in my building knows I use heroin? I plant the garden, I rake the leaves,” she said. “Your neighbor could be a heroin addict and you would never know.”
Dr. Scott MacDonald supervises the clinic where the government supplied heroin is dispensed, and says if you view heroin addiction as a medical issue, not a criminal issue, this approach makes sense.
“Heroin use, opioid addiction is just a chronic disease,” he said. “A long term illness that is manageable with treatment.”
He says the clinic provides the heroin free to patients as part of Canada’s universal healthcare system.
“Severe opioid use disorder is just a medical illness and we are providing medication to heroin users,” he said. “It is no different than providing medication to someone who has diabetes or high blood pressure.”
MacDonald says this approach also makes financial sense, reducing theft committed by addicts and simultaneously reducing incarceration costs.
“One individual had been using for 50 years and in and out of jail more than 200 times,” he said. “Since he’s been in care with us. He hasn’t been back to jail.”
“Over 20 percent of our folks say ‘I’m stable now, I’m reconnected to family and I’m working part time,’” he said.
Dr. MacDonald said the goal of the program is to ween addicts off drugs and live more productive lives.
Beer said that’s her goal as well.
“Who grows up saying ‘I want to be a heroin addict,’” she said. “You don’t choose this life.”