Prescription Opioid Abuse More Prevalent Than Heroin

Armen Hareyan's picture
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A new study conducted in seven Canadian cities reveals that prescription opioids, and not heroin, are the major form of illicit opioid use. These findings raise questions about the current focus of Canada's drug control policy and treatment programs.

A team led by Dr. Benedikt Fischer, a researcher funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and based at the Centre for Addictions Research (CARBC) at the University of Victoria, published its findings in the November 21, 2006 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Opioids are commonly prescribed as pain-killers (analgesics). Prescription opioids that are commonly prescribed in Canada include Oxycontin, morphine, Demerol, Percodan and Tylenol 3 or 4.

"Our study suggests that heroin use has become an increasingly marginal form of drug use among illicit opioid users in Canada, especially outside Vancouver and Montreal," says Dr. Fischer.

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Heroin use was substantially prevalent only in Vancouver and Montreal. It was de facto absent in smaller cities like Edmonton, Quebec City or Fredericton. And, in all study sites, there was a significant decline of heroin use among participants between 2001 and 2005.

Dr. Fischer also highlights that in a large number of cases prescription opioids used by street drug users originate from the medical system and not from illicit production and distribution.

The secondary and reduced relevance of heroin compared to prescription opioids among illicit opioid users has implications for drug control policy and treatment programs, which primarily focus on heroin abuse and dependence.

"Our drug control policies ought to be targeting prescription opioid abuse more effectively," says Dr. Fischer. "But we also need to ensure we do not compromise legitimate access to and uses of prescription opioids."

Dr. Rйmi Quirion, based in Montreal and Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction says, "although there have been reports on the increased levels of prescription opioid abuse in Canada and other jurisdictions, there has until now not been a systematic documentation of usage patterns among street drug users."

"This study, conducted by Dr. Fischer and his team provides us with the scientific evidence needed to improve public policy and treatment programs. Such research is key to ultimately improving the health of Canadians," adds. Dr. Quirion.

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