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Canada’s department of health decided last week to provide heroin to at least 15 participants who are finishing a government study in Vancouver. The study looked at using heroin and another opiate as a treatment for addicts.

Giving heroin to heroin addicts?

In the U.S., it's commonly accepted to offer users methadone, a synthetic opiate, as a sort of transition drug. Distributing heroin, though, would surely shock some people.

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The idea has its detractors in Canada, too, including the country’s Minister of Health, Rona Ambrose. She said in a statement that the decision was “in direct opposition to the government’s anti-drug policy.”

But the concept isn’t so outlandish.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in April 2012 found that chronic heroin addicts given diacetylmorphine — the scientific name for heroin — fared better than participants using methadone. And at a lower cost to society.

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Here’s why it saved money to give addicts heroin:

Users were more likely to stay in treatment longer if offered heroin as opposed to methadone. And people who stay in treatment are less likely to commit crimes, use health care services or die, researchers found.

That doesn’t mean it’s the answer to addiction. Users given heroin still spent a little over 10 years in treatment and four years in relapse. But the heroin-supplied group did better than methadone users, who spent just under 9 years in treatment and 5.5 in relapse.

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Those given heroin lived about a year longer on average and with a slightly higher quality of life, health-wise.

The takeaway

While U.S. isn’t likely to start prescribing heroin for addicts as a matter of course, the move could open the door for public health experts who want to push for this data-driven approach to treatment.

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Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.