Canadian police, public health officials and native Indian tribes are bracing for potential problems next month when the powerful painkiller OxyContin is withdrawn from the market. Purdue Pharma Canada will stop manufacturing the drug in Canada and will replace it with a new “safer” formulation called OxyNEO on March 1st.
OxyContin was developed to treat acute and chronic pain, but has become one of the most widely abused drugs on the planet. It is known as “hillbilly heroin” because of its popularity in remote rural areas, such as Canada’s far north. Addiction to OxyContin and other opioid painkillers is blamed for hundreds of deaths annually in Canada, where there is a widespread black market for OxyContin and abuse of the drug is common among native Indians. As many as half the adults and youths in Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) communities in northern Ontario are addicted to OxyContin, according to Benedikt Fischer of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health.
“Without OxyContin available, individuals will experience withdrawal,” Fischer warned in a statement for NAN. “A public health catastrophe is imminent, as there are thousands of addicted individuals with rapidly shrinking supplies – likely leading to massive increases in black market prices, use of other drugs, needle use and sharing, and crime.”
When addicts crush Oxycontin, then inject or inhale it, the painkiller produces a “heroin-like euphoria.” Once it is replaced by OxyNEO, Fischer is worried addicts will turn to more dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. OxyNEO is harder to crush for snorting or injecting.
Health care services in Canada were already taking steps to limit the use of OxyContin. Access to the painkiller is restricted in Manitoba and Newfoundland, and Ontario has dropped funding for OxyContin prescriptions from its Drug Benefit Program.
Last week the country’s national health service, Health Canada, said it would remove OxyContin from the list of drugs available through its Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program, which provides health care to people without private insurance. Only those currently prescribed OxyContin will be switched to OxyNEO. A Health Canada advisory committee has concluded there is no evidence OxyContin is more effective than other opioids and that it may be more dangerous.