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Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction

Canada is in the midst of an opioid crisis. There were more than 11,500 apparent opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and December 2018. These lost lives make the opioid crisis a leading public health and safety concern.

Recent estimates indicate that 9.6% of Canadian adults who used opioid medications in 2018 reported some form of problematic use (e.g., taking in amounts greater than prescribed, tampering with the product before taking it or using to get high or improve mood). Understanding the health and social impacts of opioid use is critical for reducing related risks and harms, as well as for controlling access for therapeutic applications. For that reason, CCSA works together with partners to provide a better understanding of the harms associated with opioid use and help support evidence-based decisions about opioid policy and practice.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids exist in both licit and illicit forms. A variety of opioid medications — such as codeine, fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone and diacetylmorphine — are produced and used most often to treat pain. People consume these products for medical and non-medical purposes.

Opioids have the potential for problematic use because they can produce a feeling of well-being or euphoria — a “high.” Most of the harms currently being experienced are due to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be prescribed to patients or acquired illicitly. The presence of fentanyl in other substances dramatically increases the risk of overdose as it is an extremely potent drug that can cause fatality even in trace amounts.

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About the Opioid Crisis

The current opioid crisis is a result of multiple, complex factors that include:

  • A misunderstanding of the addictive risk of prescription opioids;
  • 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;
  • Frequent opioid prescribing and high amounts being prescribed for pain relief;
  • Lack of awareness or access to alternative treatments for pain;
  • Use of prescription opioids by individuals to whom they are not prescribed, such as friends and family members;
  • Lack of access to prescription opioids leading to illicit opioid use;
  • Illegal drugs that are laced with fentanyl and its analogues; and
  • A lack of comprehensive care to respond to all the mental and physical health needs of an individual.

National numbers

To illustrate further the scope of the opioid crisis, view the interactive map from Health Canada’s National Report: Apparent Opioid-related Deaths in Canada. 

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