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Prescription Drugs and Opioids

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Canada is facing an urgent challenge to reduce the harms associated with psychoactive prescription drugs while ensuring people have timely and appropriate access to them for therapeutic reasons. These products include opioids, stimulants, sedatives and tranquillizers. Currently, Canadians are experiencing a surge of harms associated with opioids.

How did we get to an opioid crisis?

Prescription opioids can reduce pain and improve function. Prescription and illicit opioids can also produce a feeling of well-being or euphoria (“high”). At sufficiently high doses, opioids cause drowsiness, coma and death. The current opioid crisis is a result of multiple complex factors that include:

  • A misunderstanding of the addictive risk of prescription opioids;

  • Frequent and high amounts of opioid prescribing for pain relief;

  • Lack of awareness of alternative treatments for pain;

  • Theft of prescription opioids by friends and family members;

  • Lack of access to prescription opioids leading to illicit opioid use;

  • Illegal drugs that are laced with other substances, like fentanyl;

  • Psychological, social and biological risk factors like genetics, mental health, early life experiences, trauma, poverty, lack of secure housing and other social determinants of health;

  • Stigma towards substance use disorders, discouraging individuals from seeking help.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be prescribed, but most recently has been created in illegal laboratories and sold to individuals on the street or used by drug dealers to cut other drugs (such as cocainecounterfeit oxycodone tablets or powder heroin) to increase dealer profits. The presence of fentanyl in tablets and powders dramatically increases the risk of overdose among people using them because they do not know what substances they are using or how much of the active substance or substances is included. Conservative estimates predict one death every three days between 2009 and 2014 was related to fentanyl.

What is naloxone?

Naloxone is a rescue medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose for a short period. This gives time for emergency services to arrive or for the individual to be taken to the hospital. Naloxone is available without a prescription from many pharmacies in Canada. Unfortunately, at this time, not all pharmacies stock naloxone.

Scale of the opioid crisis

Recent estimates indicate 13.1% of Canadian adults used opioids in 2015. There were 2,816 apparent opioid related deaths in Canada in 2016, which makes it one of the leading public health and safety concerns today.

Measures that provide a better understanding of the harms associated with opioid use, such as numbers of deaths, hospitalizations and emergency department visits, are a high priority. CCSA and the Canadian Institute for Health Information released a joint report in 2016, Hospitalizations and Emergency Department Visits Due to Opioid Poisoning in Canada. Key findings of the report:

  • Opioid poisonings result in more than 13 hospitalizations a day in Canada.

  • The rate of hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning in Canada increased more than 30% between 2007–2008 and 2014–2015.​​​

This data could be used to provide better information to Canadians about the risks associated with opioids, to support evidence-informed initiatives aimed at reducing opioid-related harms and to fuel future collaborations among organizations at local, provincial/territorial and national levels in an effort to mitigate harms due to opioids.

What is being done to address the crisis?

In November 2016, the Honourable Dr. Jane Philpott, former federal Minister of Health, and the Honourable Dr. Eric Hoskins, Ontario Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, facilitated the signing of the Joint Statement of Action to Address the Opioid Crisis in Canada. This document outlines action-oriented commitments by 54 national organizations to improve prevention, treatment and harm reduction associated with problematic opioid use.

CCSA works with partners in the field to respond to opioid and other prescription drug harms. Learn more about CCSA’s response to the opioid crisis and our work on the Joint Statement of Action to Address the Opioid Crisis .  

  • CCSA has developed a Naloxone Costing Tool to help jurisdictions evaluate making naloxone more accessible, which could decrease the number of lives lost to opioid overdose.

  • CCSA has developed high-level care pathways to guide treatment for prescription drug harms.

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Let us know what your organization is doing to combat the crisis. ​​

Email us at
pharma@ccsa.ca