BC prisoners seek to expedite addiction-treatment drugs

published on March 18, 2016 by Andrea Woo in The Globe and Mail

Four opioid-addicted prisoners are challenging a BC Corrections policy they say impedes swift access to medication that could treat their addictions, putting them at risk of overdose – and death.

Keith Ahamad, an addiction physician at St. Paul’s Hospital and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said Suboxone, which has a better safety profile than methadone, has recently become the first-line treatment for opioid addiction.

“The amazing thing with Suboxone is that you can reach a stable dose, for some patients, as early as one day,” Dr. Ahamad said. “It’s very, very safe compared to methadone. If you had someone in corrections, who you didn’t know if they were going to be there for two or three days or two or three months, within a [few] days you could have someone on a stable dose. Methadone could take weeks, but you can still start someone.” What’s more complicated is ensuring patients have continued therapy upon discharge from a correctional centre – but such discharge plans are already part of BC Corrections policy, he said.

Using illicit drugs is made more dangerous in jail because of a lack of harm-reduction supplies.

“You can’t get sterile rigs [syringes] in jail so people make their own,” plaintiff Nikola Skupnik, 34, wrote in an affidavit. “There is lots of sharing. People can get diseases from that.”

According to urinalysis results from the 2012/2013 fiscal year, 6 per cent of federally incarcerated offenders tested positive for drug use. The most commonly found drug was THC, which can be detected in urine for up to five weeks for chronic heavy users, according to Correctional Service Canada. Other drugs such as opioids and cocaine can be undetectable in a matter of hours.

M-J Milloy, an epidemiologist at the BC-CfE, noted the availability of illicit drugs in prisons, and the increased risk from a lack of harm-reduction supplies, such as clean needles.

“Drugs are a reality in Canadian prisons,” said Dr. Milloy. “What is not a reality, unfortunately, is the best available medical care to keep people from the harms of that drug use.”

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