Canadians love their prescription drugs but experts call for national strategy on abuse

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Canadians are the second-largest per capita consumers of prescription drugs and other controlled substances in the world, but the country has no national strategy to deal with abuse, The Canadian Press reports.

"We haven't developed a co-ordinated approach that makes sense in Canada that allows each province to have a bit of a framework to guide their own direction," said Dr. Susan Ulan, co-chair of the Alberta-based Coalition on Prescription Drug Misuse.

The prescription drug consumption figure comes from the International Narcotics Control Board. Yet, there's no national system to track addiction and related deaths, The Canadian Press noted.

Ulan said some provinces, including Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, have had their own monitoring programs in place for years but others are just beginning.

The Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse has recruited 30 experts to help develop a national strategy to track drug abuse and overdose rates. The centre expects to have a monitoring system in place before the end of this year.

In a June news release, the centre said drug overdoses have risen at an alarming rate, with deaths from oxycodone increasing 416 per cent between 1999 and 2004.

Abuse of oxycodone has been particularly rampant on some First Nations reserves. A switch last spring to a version of the potent painkiller that is harder to break down and misuse, coupled with tighter federal rules for prescribing it, triggered concerns of a massive withdrawal crisis among aboriginal addicts.

[Related: Overdose death sparks renewed concerns over removal of OxyContin from Canadian market]

The proposed national strategy would take a multi-pronged approach; tackling prescription drug abuse, education, prevention, treatment, enforcement and monitoring of at-risk patients and doctors, The Canadian Press reported.

Ontario Ministor Deb Matthews said a strong national strategy "is absolutely the way to go."

The province recorded 400 deaths from abuse of opioids such as oxycodone, morphine and codeine - twice as many as died in traffic accidents.

The problem with OxyContin addiction on some northern Ontario reserves is so bad that some leaders declared states of emergency in their communities, with thousands of residents hooked on the drug.

The federal government last month pledged $1.5 million to support programs to fight prescription drug abuse on Ontario reserves, QMI Agency reported.

Ontario has introduced a prescription drug monitoring database, similar to the one used for years in B.C. and other provinces, which tracks information on prescribing doctors, druggists and patients and red flag signs of multiple prescriptions.

"So we'll be watching that very closely, we'll be able to identify those people and take those appropriate steps, including in the extreme outlier cases involving law enforcement," Matthews said.

Experts also say more education is needed for doctors, druggists and patients about the risks associated with prescription pain-management drugs.

Privacy laws may also have to be amended to give health officials access to patient information, said Doug Spitzig, who manages Saskatchewan's prescription-review program.

"The vast majority of physicians are good prescribers," he said. "There are just a few of them that need a more educational aspect with regards to prescribing."