Canada now has a national strategy to tackle the escalating prescription drug abuse crisis that has crippled so many families, communities and first nations.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, together with a large group of experts and officials, has published a new 10-year plan that would set up a countrywide surveillance system and overhaul legislation so that doctors and pharmacists no longer prescribe painkillers indiscriminately, and addicts are able to get appropriate and timely help.
The strategy takes aim at opioids, stimulants and sedatives.
"This strategy addresses prescription drugs that are legal and have therapeutic uses, but also have a high potential for harm," states the document, entitled First Do No Harm: Responding to Canada's Prescription Drug Crisis.
It urges governments and regulators to set up a pan-Canadian surveillance system that tracks patterns of prescription drug abuse down to the regional level.
It also recommends that the provinces establish prescription monitoring programs within the next two years by engaging with regulators to clamp down on high-risk prescribing and dispensing practices.
"Existing activities to monitor the harms associated with prescription drugs in Canada are fragmented," the report states. "The data sources that do exist in Canada, such as coroner reports, poison centre records, [health] data, losses and thefts data, post-market surveillance related to adverse events data, medication incidents and law enforcement records, are not part of any comprehensive national initiative."
But in order for this part of the strategy to work, governments need to review and reconcile the web of laws that affect prescription drugs, the report warns.
"Federal, provincial and territorial privacy law, which is not harmonized across jurisdictions, is a significant challenge not unique to the monitoring and surveillance stream. Legislation limits how and why personal data are collected and stored. Limited understanding of this legislation impacts how these data are used and shared."
The plan would also see increased resources for policing, so that law enforcement can raise awareness and promote the safe storage of properly used drugs, instead of just dealing with the fallout from abuse.
The strategy also recommends major improvements to the sharing of information about prevention and abuse, as well as better access for addicts to treatment – especially in remote first nations where some communities have reported that the overwhelming majority of adults are addicted.
In Ontario, 18.6 per cent of people seeking addiction treatment in 2010-11 were struggling with prescription drugs, compared with just 10.6 per cent in 2005-06.