Since becoming widely used to manage chronic pain more than two decades ago, opioid drugs have become amongst the most widely-prescribed class of medications in Canada. Canadians are the second highest per capita consumers of prescription opioid medications in the world, with an average of 53 prescriptions written for every 100 people each year.
Unfortunately, the widespread availability of prescription opioid medications and their highly addictive nature have resulted in a dramatic rise in the rate of opioid dependency and has fuelled a growing crisis that has affected every province in Canada. Overdoses involving fentanyl—a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100× more potent than morphine—have resulted in at least 655 deaths in Canada between 2009-2014. In Ontario, there was a staggering 867 opioid-related deaths in 2016 alone.
While there is much discussion and debate amongst regulatory bodies, healthcare experts and the public on how to curb the opioid crisis, relative little has been said about the damning role of the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry that had sparked the crisis. In 1995, Purdue Pharma—an American pharmaceutical company—produced and began to market OxyContin, a semisynthetic opioid produced from the Persian poppy plant, to physicians as a safe and effective means of controlling chronic, non-cancer pain. Purdue, by its own admission, deliberately misled physicians about the risks of prescribing this drug—claiming that it had little addictive potential. As a result, OxyContin became the first opioid drug to be widely used to manage pain and opened the way for the massive over-prescription of these medications and the resultant surge in opioid addiction.
Tragically, this spike in the rate of opioid addiction opened the door for the establishment of a black market of street opioids, including fentanyl and now the ultra-potent carfentanyl. All of this has led to the highest narcotic abuse rates in history, a crisis that has touched the lives of far too many people in Ontario and indeed all of Canada. In addition to overdose-related deaths, the opioid crisis has also brought forward a resurgence in the rate of HIV transmission in Ontario municipalities and in an alarming number of new cases of sepsis and endocarditis related to injection drug use.
All the while, Purdue Pharma remains largely untouched by the crisis they helped create. While the company has been forced to pay a number of settlements in lawsuits related to the opioid crisis, Purdue still enjoyed profits to the tune of $35 billion USD in 2017, and has been permitted to continue to manufacture and sell “next-generation” opioid medications that are supposedly “tamper-proof”.
While the Ontario government has taken some steps towards combatting the opioid crisis, including making naloxone kits available free-of-charge at pharmacies and public health units, and implementing improved systems to track opioid prescribing and opioid-related ER visits, hospitalizations and deaths, we find their response to be unacceptably tepid.
The Communist Party of Ontario calls upon the Ontario provincial government to:
- Declare a public health emergency, similar to what has been done by the government of British Columbia in order to maximally mobilize resources to combat the opioid crisis,
- Immediately release funding and renew pressure on municipalities across the province to establish safe consumption sites, and
- Demand that Purdue Pharma and its Canadian subsidiary, Purdue Pharma Canada, be held responsible for their role in the opioid crisis by all available legal means.
As a Party, we also support measures that would reduce the dependency on opioid medications for chronic pain management, including the re-listing of physiotherapy and inclusion of psychotherapy as services covered under OHIP, and funding for multidisciplinary pain clinics that can effectively provide non-pharmacological modalities of chronic pain control.
Provincial Committee, Communist Party of Canada (Ontario)
December 10, 2017