Who says that heroin is an illegal painkiller?

The Globe and Mail was wrong in a recent column about the Insite heroin clinic in Vancouver, when it stated that heroin was an illegal drug. Its editors have forgotten that when I wrote for the G and M I spent thousands of dollars placing ads in the newspaper during a campaign to legalize heroin. And that Jake Epp, the Minister of Health, announced on Dec. 4, 1984 that heroin would be legalized to treat terminal cancer pain.

But what happened after that?

Obituary columns daily report that loved ones “passed away peacefully”. But this is a downright lie. Most people still die in pain. More palliative care centers are desperately needed in this country.

In 1979 I wrote that English doctors had been using heroin for over 80 years to ease the agony of terminal cancer pain. I questioned why heroin wasn’t available in Canada?

Thousands of letters of support encouraged me to start a campaign to legalize what has been called “God’s painkiller.”

But it quickly became apparent that powerful organizations did not want to be told by a medical journalist they had been wrong for 80 years.

One well-known cancer specialist called me a “misinformed headline seeking journalist.”

The Cancer Society charged that morphine was a good as heroin in most cases. But what if you were not one of those cases? And some doctors publicly criticized the use of heroin, while admitting they had never used it. The RCMP worried about security problems if heroin was legalized. So I traveled to England and was told by Scotland Yard this was not a problem. In fact, rural doctors carried heroin in their bags in case it was needed to treat emergency pain. And children dying of cancer at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, England, were prescribed heroin because it gave them comfort, a ‘fuzzy’ feeling.

During this debate I delivered 40,000 letters from Canadians to the Minister of Health pleading for the legalization of heroin.

Later, I presented the case for heroin before the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare and Social Justice. I told them that the witnesses who would be the most convincing on the need for heroin could not be present. They were all dead and died in pain.

In 1983 I established The W. Gifford-Jones Foundation to which readers sent funds to help fight the critics of heroin. Full-page ads were placed in the Globe and Mail and Canadians began sending letters to politicians demanding the legalization of heroin. This finally sent the message to Ottawa that families of loved ones had seen enough suffering.

It was the end of a huge, fatiguing battle and readers of this column had won. But ultimately we lost the war. Opponents of heroin would not be silenced by the government’s decision and constructed roadblocks to prevent its use.

Hospitals arbitrarily decided that doctors who wanted to prescribe heroin had to present their reasons before a hospital committee.

Heroin also had to be kept in a secure location and transported when needed with armed guards. None of this was required in England and it resulted in such little use of heroin in Canada that the pharmaceutical company licensed to import it stopped doing so. Today there is no heroin, though legally available in Canada for cancer patients. This is a major humanitarian offence.

I donated the $450,000 that remained from contributions to establish The Gifford-Jones Professorship in Pain Control and Palliative Care. Now, the University of Toronto is trying to raise $2,000,000 to train doctors from Newfoundland to British Columbia in Palliative Care.

Major donors are being sought. But you can also help.

All royalties from my autobiography You’re Going to Do What? will be donated to this campaign. I’ve had an interesting, albeit controversial life, and the book depicts the best and worst of times. But one of my major goals remains to end needless suffering and I hope you share my view.

The book sells for $14.95 plus HST and can be obtained by sending a cheque to ECW Press, 2120 Queen St. East, Toronto, Ontario, M4E 1E2. Or by using the e-mail sarah@ecwpress.com.