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Health Canada, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse working on a strategy to address prescription drug abuse

By Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq      

Opioids are also narcotics, and they are addictive and can be abused, and, unfortunately, diverted to illicit markets and uses.

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The abuse of prescription drugs, including oxycodone, is a serious and complex problem that destroys the lives of individuals and the fabric of communities. These drugs help to alleviate the suffering of many Canadians, and have emerged as an important part of pain management under the supervision of health-care professionals.

But opioids are also narcotics, and they are addictive and can be abused, and, unfortunately, diverted to illicit markets and uses. I have heard heartfelt pleas from doctors and patients who speak to the positive impact it has had in treating chronic pain. And I have heard heartbreaking stories of abuse and addiction destroying the lives of individuals and families.

Both sides of the argument are compelling, and require a response from all levels of government, health-care practitioners, and law enforcement.

Our government is committed to working with provinces, territories, health professionals, and other partners to balance the need for allowing access to pain medication to those in need with the need to mitigate the risk of diversion to reduce potential abuse and harm.

At the federal level, under the Food and Drugs Act, prescription drugs can be marketed in Canada provided they meet the requirements for safety, efficacy and quality. 

To address the risks of abuse and diversion, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) prescribes various strict controls on activities with substances that can alter mental processes and that may produce harm to health and to society. 

The Narcotic Control Regulations (NCR) set out the circumstances and requirements under which producers, distributors, importers, exporters, pharmacists, practitioners and hospitals may conduct regulated activities including the possession, sale, distribution, importing and exporting, and production of narcotics. 

Examples of narcotics are codeine, morphine, hydromorphone and oxycodone. Health Canada closely monitors activities with such narcotics, including regular inspections of licensed dealers. Where appropriate, law enforcement agencies are alerted to any wrongdoing.

But provinces, territories and health-care practitioners also have a key role to play in addressing prescription drug abuse. 

Determining who is eligible to prescribe a drug and whether or not a drug is covered under a province or territory’s drug coverage plans is a decision taken by the provinces and territories, and not by the federal government.

Doctors, pharmacists, dentists, and other medical practitioners all fall under the jurisdiction of provinces and territories; they play an important role in shutting down supply to those who abuse these drugs which are intended to help patients.

I have written to my provincial and territorial counterparts to encourage them in their efforts to fight against those who would abuse the system. I have also offered to enhance the sharing of information between our jurisdictions so that together we may monitor the use of prescription drugs and take concrete measures to control their abuse.

There has been much discussion in the media of Health Canada’s authorization in November 2012 of generic versions of OxyContin. This decision was made by Health Canada on the basis of scientific evidence that these products were considered safe and effective for their recommended use. 

However, to deal with risks of abuse and diversion, we imposed tough new restrictions on the licences of anyone manufacturing or distributing products containing the controlled release formulation of oxycodone.

Companies are now required to report to Health Canada sales of these products separately from those of other products. They are also required to report any suspicious transactions to Health Canada, and to report to local law enforcement agencies any unexplained losses and thefts. This is in addition to the stringent controls already in place under the CDSA.

Last September at a health ministers meeting, my provincial and territorial counterparts and I agreed to work together collaboratively on the emerging and important issue of prescription drug abuse. 

To this end, Health Canada and other stakeholders are working in collaboration with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) on a strategy to address prescription drug abuse in Canada.

Prescription drug abuse is much larger than just one pill, and Health Canada cannot solve this problem alone. I believe that all health ministers must continue to work together, along with health professionals, law enforcement and other key partners and stakeholders, to make a difference in the lives of patients who legitimately need opioids to maintain a reasonable quality of life, while at the same time making it harder for people to abuse prescription drugs.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq represents Nunavut. 

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