(Published in 24 Hours Nov. 14, 2012)

Drug patent expiration may boost numbers of drug abusers


   By Leo Knight




In two weeks, the patent expires for the drug OxyContin, also known by its generic name oxycodone. Typically, Health Canada allows drug patents to expire without fanfare, then competitors produce generic versions of the drug at cheaper prices.

This might be the case if OxyContin weren’t so popular and so addictive that it earned the nickname “hillbilly heroin.” Typically, police see most OxyContin addicts in impoverished areas across Canada, where unemployment is high.

OxyContin is a prescription drug but those are abused, too - some might argue even more than illicit drugs. In this case, pills are ground up and snorted or injected like heroin. It also acts like heroin and overdoses kill people.

It’s a painkiller usually prescribed for chronic pain, which can be difficult to measure. Some people will lie to doctors to obtain it. Additionally, seeing multiple doctors for the same prescription is a typical scam, with patients using multiple fake IDs much like in welfare scams. People at the lower end of the income scale also get medications paid for by our generous social system.

According to study results released last month by the Interior Health Authority in conjunction with the BC Coroners Service, people in southeastern B.C. are dying from prescription opioid overdoses in similar numbers to drunk-driving incidents. The Ontario coroner's service did a similar study but with drowning victims as the comparison.

Patent-holder and manufacturer Purdue Pharma LP would naturally like a patent extension to continue its monopoly. To its credit, it has taken steps to limit abuse by creating a new version called OxyNeo, with a special coating making it tougher to pulverize. However, generics wouldn’t be required to have that coating.

A concern is when the patent expires, the street situation will return to where it was before the coated version came out.

Ontario’s health minister Deb Matthews has formally asked her federal counterpart, Leona Aglukkaq, to block Health Canada from allowing the patent to expire. But brace yourselves for the lawsuits from competitors that would undoubtedly ensue — producers like Apotex Inc. have already spent $3 million on their research and development and have applied to Health Canada for permission to produce and distribute oxycodone.

I don't like government intrusion at the best of times. That said, there are times for government to do the right thing and act. The problem in this case is the right thing is not readily apparent.


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