Illicit drug users turning to prescription painkillers


percocetOTTAWA - Forget heroin. Legal prescription drugs readily available in pharmacies are now the major source of illicit opioid drug abuse in several major Canadian cities, which raises questions about drug control in the country, a new study released today reveals. This tendency was also mentioned in U.S. prescription drug crackdown leads to heroin use.

Although heroin addiction has been one of the most significant drug problems in Canada for years, research shows users are turning to opioids, or prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, Percocet and morphine, at an increasing rate.

"The intensity of the shift surprised me quite a bit,'' said Dr. Benedikt Fischer, study author and addictions researcher at the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia. "This study, for the first time, shows that systematically, and I would not have assumed, this is such a dramatic shift.''

The findings were published in today's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The study looked at hundreds of regular users of illicit opioids from 2001 to 2005 to track their use patterns and other social and health factors. Researchers focused on 679 users in 2001 and followed up with about 60 per cent in 2005. Researchers recruited new participants in order to ensure a large enough sample size in the follow-up. The study involved drug users in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Fredericton and Saint John.

After tracking the changes in drug abuse patterns throughout the study period, researchers were surprised to see heroin use waned in every city involved in the study.

In fact, Vancouver and Montreal were the only cities where heroin was the most commonly used opioid among study participants. In some cities, heroin use was virtually absent. Researchers also found the use of crack and cocaine declined throughout the study period.

The increasing trend toward prescription painkiller abuse is a major problem that signals significant changes are needed in the way government and law enforcement approach drug control, Fischer said.

Under the current system, officials are focused on cracking down on heroin, cocaine and other illicit drugs and keeping them out of the country.

But little is being done about the fact Oxycontin, morphine and other opioids are well stocked in pharmacies and readily available virtually everywhere, Fischer said. It's not difficult for addicted drug users to get their hands on prescription painkillers either, he said. While some people may steal the drugs, others simply try ``double doctoring'', which means seeking the same prescription from several doctors over a short period of time.

"It's relatively easy in our system to get prescription opioids,'' Fischer said. "We do relatively little to control or monitor what people get.''

While many people use such drugs properly and it helps them cope with pain, government and police in Canada can't ignore the fact many people are hooked on those drugs, he said.

"They're legitimately in the country, but they're going into the wrong hands,'' he said.

In order to develop the solution, it's necessary for greater recognition of the fact prescription painkiller abuse has become a crippling problem in Canada, he said. After that, health officials can focus on developing prevention and treatment programs to help those who are dependent on opioids, Fischer said. But right now, that seems like a far-off solution.

"We know relatively little about what to do on an evidence basis, what to do efficiently about prescription opioid dependence or abuse,'' Fischer said.

source - CanWest News Service