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Prescription drugs rather than heroin the drug of choice in Canada

A new study carried in seven Canadian cities, has revealed that prescription opioids, rather than heroin, are the biggest form of illicit opioid currently in use.

The study conducted by Dr. Benedikt Fischer and colleagues at the University of Victoria has found that heroin use has become an increasingly marginal form of drug use among illicit opioid users in

They say their findings question current drug control policies and treatment programs in Canada.

The research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and based at the Centre for Addictions Research (CARBC) at the University of Victoria, found that heroin use was  substantially prevalent only in Vancouver and Montreal.

It was virtually non-existent in smaller cities such as Edmonton, Quebec City and Fredericton and in all the study sites, there was a significant decline of heroin use among participants between 2001 and 2005.

Opioids are commonly prescribed as pain-killers (analgesics) such as Oxycontin, morphine, Demerol, Percodan and Tylenol 3 or 4.

Prescription opioids are generally ground up and then injected into the bloodstream to achieve a "high".

Dr. Fischer says that in a large number of cases prescription opioids used by street drug users originated from the medical system and not from illicit production and distribution.

The supply to addicts of such narcotic painkillers as Demerol, Dilaudid, OxyContin and Percodan is big business and has given rise to break-ins at doctors' offices and pharmacies, double-doctoring (seeking prescriptions from different doctors) and more generalized theft to turn the proceeds of crime into money for drugs.

Dr. Fischer says in view of the findings drug control policies should be targeting prescription opioid abuse more effectively, without compromising legitimate access to and uses of prescription opioids.

Experts say the study is the first systematic documentation of drug use patterns among street drug users and the best to date on the issue of prescription opioid abuse in Canada.

The multisite OPICAN cohort was established in 2001 and the results reported in this study are based mainly on a follow-up sample of 585 participants from the seven Canadian cities, Vancouver,
Edmonton,Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, Fredericton and St. John, who were assessed most recently in 2005.

The study is published in the current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.