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Laura says.

No easy solution

A lot of Ontarians feel the same way Laura does - and it's only recently that the government recognized it's a problem.‪

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In fairness, everyone was caught off guard by the explosion of OxyContin - a slow-release form of the opioid oxycodone - after it hit the market in the 1990s. But some provinces have been quicker than others to recognize that the highly addictive chronic-pain reliever is widely abused, and moved to monitor and restrict the amounts prescribed and dispensed.‪ ‪

"Ontario is doing worse on this front than any other province, by a long shot," Ms. Matthews says during an interview in her riding.‪ ‪The numbers speak for themselves: In 2008, OxyContin was sold by Ontario pharmacies at more than double the national average.‪ ‪

In 2008-09, it accounted for 45 per cent of the staggering 3.6 million opioid prescriptions paid for by the Ontario Drug Benefit - the public plan that covers seniors and low-income patients. (By 2009-10, the ODB was up to 3.9 million opioid claims, made by 776,000 people.) It's not known how many more prescriptions are sold to cash-paying customers or private plans.‪ ‪

Ms. Matthews, who first took an interest in the file during her previous posting as minister of women's affairs and children's services, knows that at this stage there's no easy solution.

Ontario officials reject the idea of banning the drug outright. They don't even want to go as far as Manitoba, which recently began requiring doctors to get approval from the provincial ministry before writing an OxyContin prescription. They fear swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, because Oxy is very effective in helping with pain that would otherwise be unmanageable - particularly, though not exclusively, for cancer sufferers.

So Ms. Matthews's aim is to strike a balance in which OxyContin only winds up in the hands of the right people.

Multifacedted approach

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In 2009, the province set up an advisory committee of doctors, pharmacists, police, coroners and various other experts to develop a multipronged strategy to curb prescription-drug addiction.

Ms. Matthews seems to think, or at least hope, that the biggest prong can and should be education. Enlighten health professionals on what they're dealing with, set clear guidelines for when and how much to prescribe and dispense, then trust them to make the right decisions.

"My starting point is that the vast majority of doctors and pharmacists want to do what's right for their patients," she says. But some doctors "don't have the information they need to appropriately prescribe" - leading them to prescribe to people with relatively mild pain that could be managed in other ways, or to write overly large prescriptions.

But it's hard to believe that any physician is blissfully unaware that it's a bad idea to prescribe hundreds of tablets at once, or that a drug-abusing patient can't easily be identified as such. And it's difficult to escape the fact that, in places such as London, addicts are able to rhyme off which doctors will write prescriptions without asking too many questions.

Ms. Matthews acknowledges that "a very few outliers might be complicit in illegal activity." For others, it may be too difficult to do the right thing - addicts (or dealers) can be persistent, and in some cases intimidating. The easiest thing could be to give them what they want, especially if there's a sense that otherwise they'll get it somewhere else.

The government's challenge, for all the talk of education, is largely to set and enforce standards that place less onus on individual doctors and pharmacists to make discretionary decisions about prescribing and dispensing. In addition to limiting the number of pills that can be prescribed at once, that will ultimately mean taking measures to ensure patients can't shop around to multiple doctors or get the same prescriptions filled at multiple pharmacies. And at some point, it will require cracking down on doctors with patterns of over-prescribing.

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This would all be much easier if the province's efforts to create a system of electronic health records hadn't been massively set back by last year's eHealth Ontario scandal. In the meantime, the government has ways of monitoring ODB prescriptions, at least, though addicts can work around that by paying cash. The province will have to get the support of private plans, and overcome sensitive privacy issues, to monitor the rest.

It will be a slow build. Even Ms. Matthews bursts into laughter at the notion of half the OxyContin being dispensed within a few years from now.

Dangers of restricting supply

But no matter how long it takes, there's an obvious question left here: What happens if the province succeeds in lowering the supply of the drug, but not the demand for it?

Put another way: What about all those addicts the system has already created?

Choking the supply might force a few to confront their addiction. But more will just find another drug. Already, there are rumours of heroin being introduced into the London market, possibly because even now, there isn't quite enough Oxy to go around.

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To the extent that Oxy is still available, reducing the supply will put a premium on it. That could easily lead to more crime, not less.

"I think that's an issue to be aware of; I don't think it's a reason not to do it," Ms. Matthews says. But, she acknowledges that treatment as well as prevention will have to be part of the plan.

In London, an integrated addiction strategy seems to have strong support from the municipal government as it strives to offer everything from shelter to counselling to harm reduction. Still, many of the people running those services complain bitterly about a lack of federal and provincial support. Spots in rehabilitation clinics are scarce. When they do come up for a spot in an overnight rehab clinic, many addicts wind up passing them up because of a peculiar rule that requires them to first be clean for 72 hours. And there are the common complaints about a lack of adequate investment in mental health services, as well as affordable housing.

As for Laura, she has every reason to want to get clean - most notably an infant daughter she's sent off to live with her family. But she knows from past experience - she got clean twice, only to get sucked back in by her friends - that it's more than she can manage right now.

Ms. Matthews doesn't have many answers for her. But for now, at least, she'd settle for stopping more Lauras from finding their way to the street.

This is the second instalment of a four-part series

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