ATLANTA — As deaths continue to escalate from the opioid and heroin crisis across the country and here in Georgia, Channel 2 Action News visited an addiction clinic doing something you may say is unthinkable: giving heroin to addicts.
Despite the controversy, studies and patients experiences back up the success of the approach.
The idea behind it is simple: If addicts are going to use heroin, why not give it to them in a safe environment?
The drugs are not contaminated, addicts don't turn to crime and they can start to rebuild their lives.
Three times a day, heroin addict David Napio walks to a clinic to get a dose of what he calls his "medicine."
It's not for diabetes or high blood pressure. It's a pre-mixed dose of pure, pharmaceutical heroin ready for injection into his shoulder.
"I feel like I have gone from a person on the strip, a junkie on the strip, to someone now has been given his life back," Napio told Channel 2's Tom Regan.
Napio is one of 130 addicts that can legally use heroin at a clinic in Vancouver, Canada.
Such treatment may seem irrational, even dangerous, but it's gaining attention as the United States and Georgia battle an epidemic of overdose deaths.
Of the 1,300 overdose deaths in Georgia, in 2015, 900 of them were due to opioids and heroin.
"We need to get people into care, whatever works," Dr. Scott MacDonald told Regan.
MacDonald heads the heroin-assisted treatment program at Providence Crosstown Clinic. The drug they administer is diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin.
“The benefit is we are providing a pharmaceutical grade treatment. People know exactly what they're getting. It's not contaminated," Macdonald said.
MacDonald told Regan the treatment is directed at hard-core heroin addicts who don't benefit from other medications such as methadone and suboxone.
MacDonald said instead of committing crimes to get a fix, they can focus on getting their lives back in order.
“I've had patients go from living in a box to completing schooling and working full time. We have patients who have reconnected with family," MacDonald told Regan.
MacDonald was invited to Washington, D.C., last year to speak to a congressional subcommittee exploring options to battle America's heroin and opioid addiction.
"No single treatment is effective for all individuals. Every person left untreated is at a high risk for serious illness and premature death,” MacDonald told congressional leaders.
MacDonald cited a New England Journal of Medicine study that supports heroin-assisted treatment in special cases.
"We need every tool in the toolbox to rise to the challenge the opioid epidemic represents," MacDonald said.
“If I didn't have this, the odds of me being a statistic right now are very good," Russell Cooper told Regan.
Cooper, 55, robbed banks and went to prison to feed his drug addiction.
“When I started here, I was in a shelter two blocks away. I got a one-bedroom apartment now,” Cooper said.
With nurses standing by with naloxone, the clinic said it's never had a fatal overdose.
“This is a safe treatment. If people are engaged in care, they are protected from overdose,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald told Regan that treating patients with medical grade heroin and hyrdromorphone costs about $25,000 per year. That’s about half the societal cost of a street addict.
“This reduces policing costs, court costs, incarceration costs," MacDonald told Regan.
Dr. Susan Blank runs the Addiction Healing Center in Norcross and is president of the Georgia Society of Addiction Medicine. She has worked with drug addicts for more than 15 years.
“I don’t see it being useful. And I see it as being extremely counterproductive because you are still introducing a high to that person several times a day,” Blank said.
She said because health care is socialized in Canada, addiction treatment is focused more on reducing the societal costs and less on treating the individual.
“I think that in the United States, we have a lot more hope for people. We have a lot more hope that we are able to introduce people to recovery as opposed to continued maintenance,” Blank said.
Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom also have prescription heroin programs.
"There should be nothing left off the table," Judge Robert McBurney told Regan.
McBurney sits on Fulton County's drug accountability court. It gives offenders with substance abuse problems the opportunity for alternative sentencing and treatment to rebuild their lives.
He said the heroin-assisted program may be an option for some hard-core addicts.
"It's a question of life or death for most these people and the notion that we ought not to try to preserve life and stabilize the situation so other forms of treatment could kick in, I don't see why we would turn away from that," McBurney said.
In Canada, there are many cities with injection sites where addicts can shoot up heroin under nurse and clinical supervision.
The mayor of Ithaca, New York, is proposing injection facilities there to combat the overdose epidemic.
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