By Mallory Clarkson/London Community News
Just weeks after OxyContin was delisted, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care announced it is rolling out a province-wide plan to help recovering users find addiction treatment.
“As part of Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy (developed in June 2011 to create more client-centred mental health and addictions services throughout the province), we are creating a more co-ordinated and responsive system to identify problems and intervene early,” said Health Minister Deb Matthews, who is also the MPP for London North-Centre, in a statement issued Monday (March 12). She added the hope with this strategy is to improve outcomes for those struggling with mental health and addictions.
“I will continue to work closely with health care partners and community leaders to ensure a co-ordinated response for those struggling with prescription narcotics addiction,” Matthews said.
The program lays out seven strategies, including partnering with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to create withdrawal and treatment guidelines to improving outcomes for people addicted to prescription pain medication; closely monitoring emergency departments to identify increased cases of withdrawal; and improve access to counselling services from across the province.
As of March 1, OxyContin’s producer — Purdue Pharma Canada —stopped distributing the brand name opioid formulation and instead has been filling pharmacy stockrooms with a new drug, called OxyNEO, that’s harder to crush and abuse.
Linda Sibley, executive director of Addiction Services of Thames Valley (ADSTV), said there is a concern that people with an addiction to the painkiller will ignore the warnings of OxyNEO and try to use it in the same way they would of OxyContin.
“I’m concerned there may be either inexperienced drug users or drug users who don’t believe the warnings who are still going to try to inject, snort or do something with the pill they’ve bought,” Sibley said. “I don’t know what happens to veins or nasal cavities, but it can’t be good.”
This is one of the reasons Sibley said the public needs to be educated. She added another concern is users will go into withdrawal and won’t seek assistance because they’re nervous or embarrassed.
Patients with an existing OxyContin prescription will be able to get OxyNEO as a substitute. But to get a new prescription for the new drug, patients will have to go through an Exceptional Access Program, which means their doctor will have to apply and demonstrate OxyNEO is necessary.
Since November, Ontarians have also had to provide identification to their physicians and pharmacists to pick up narcotics and other controlled medications, including OxyContin.
While the painkiller has gained a lot of media and public attention over the past couple of years, the ADSTV has seen an increase in the last decade in the number of people who say they have a problem with the drug.
But, Sibley said that while narcotics and pain killers — including OxyContin — have always been on the organization’s long list of substances people become addicted to, it became more commonly reported as a problem drug over the last three years.
Historically, alcohol and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC – which is found in marijuana) ranked first and second, respectively. Up until recent years, cocaine and crack were the third most popular.
“Two years ago was the first time that the category of prescription narcotics of pain killers became No. 3,” Sibley said. “I mean it barely passed cocaine and crack, but it sort of muscled its way through.”
According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, physicians started prescribing OxyContin in 1996 to help control moderate pain, chronic pain sometimes relating to cancer and other terminal conditions. Currently there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians using the medication for pain relief.
OxyContin came in a controlled-release tablet that provided 12-hours of pain relief.
But, when used illicitly, the drug could be crushed and then ingested, snorted or diluted in water and injected.
A report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse noted OxyContin can cause euphoric effects that are similar to that of heroin when used illicitly. Sibley explained that when abused, rather than having prolonged pain relief, OxyContin users experience 12-hours worth of medication at once.
But, when used as prescribed, Sibley stressed some patients never became dependent on the drug.
“It’s really incorrect for the public to think that drug and the property of the drug is so evil, so demonic that everyone will become addicted,” she said. “It is understood that when you do use pain medication as prescribed for pain, you shouldn’t develop a dependency.”
Moving forward, Sibley said OxyContin users may take a number of routes, knowing the drug won’t be available anymore. She said some may anticipate withdrawal and go into treatment, whereas some may find a new drug of choice. Sibley added people may turn to black markets from other countries for their fix.
But, Sibley said, with a public education process, she hopes users will seek help with their addictions when they’re ready.
To learn more, check out the Drug and Alcohol Helpline (1-800-565-8603) at www.drugandalcoholhelpline.ca, or for more information on addiction and withdrawal, visit the CAMH’s website at www.camh.net.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story had an incorrect number for the Drug and Alcohol Helpline, the correct phone number is now listed above.