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Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are shown in this June 20, 2012 photo.Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

While the provinces have lost their battle with Ottawa to ban OxyContin, a slow-release narcotic that addicts inject or snort for a potent high, they can still implement greater controls over how the drug is prescribed.

Leona Aglukkaq, the Minister of Health, has announced she will not delay the approval of the generic form of OxyContin when Purdue Pharma Canada's patent expires on Nov. 25. She is right when she says politicians should not "pick and choose which drugs get approved." This process is better left to Health Canada.

However, provinces concerned about the abuse of the opioid, known generically as oxycodone, can continue to implement better controls over how the pills are tracked, prescribed and reimbursed on drug formularies.

They can also encourage doctors to use OxyNEO, Purdue's replacement drug, which has a coating that makes it harder to crush and to snort or inject.

When OxyContin was first introduced in Canada in the mid-1990s, it led to a huge increase in the number of doctors willing to prescribe it for chronic pain. Last year, 1.6 million prescriptions were filled. But it quickly became apparent that the drug was highly addictive and that many were selling their pills on the black market and to addicts across the U.S. border.

Although no conclusive research has been carried out, OxyNEO appears to be harder to abuse. In light of this, some provinces have dropped coverage of OxyContin from their provincial health plans in favour of OxyNEO.

Ms. Aglukkaq said that distributors of oxycodone will have to keep better track of where the drug goes, and report spikes in sales and changes in distribution patterns. She left open the possibility of further federal intervention to restrict prescribing and dispensing of the drug, as it does with the drug methadone.

Ottawa could also address the epidemic in prescription drug abuse by funding more treatment programs for addicts, especially for aboriginals and for those living in remote areas, and opening more beds for those going through withdrawal.