Experts urge Canada’s health minister to recall high-strength opioids

A new Canadian Medical Association Journal commentary is calling on Canada’s health minister to pull high-strength opioids from the Canadian market.

Authors Matthew Herder and David Juurlink say the federal health minister can recall the drugs using a relatively new power in Canadian law, known as “Vanessa’s Law.”


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“We’re calling on the federal minister of health to use that power for the first time since it was added to Canadian law in 2014,”  said Herder, Health Law Institute director at Dalhousie University.

Vanessa’s Law, also known as the Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act, was spearheaded by then-Conservative MP Terence Young and named after his daughter, who was 15 years old when she died of a heart attack in 2000 after taking a prescribed drug.

In the CMAJ commentary, the authors note the law allows the health minister to recall a drug when he or she believes the drug presents a “serious or imminent risk of injury to health.”

“The legislation doesn’t define what a serious health risk is, but Health Canada has said it is determined on a case by case in view of several conditions.

“We think high-strength opioid formulations meet those considerations because the adverse health consequences are quite numerous including risk of death.”

The article gives examples of high-strength opioid products as the equivalent of between 200 and 400 mg of morphine per day.

Herder says recalling these drugs wouldn’t mean patients currently taking them would have to change their dose, instead, he hopes it would prompt conversations between patients and their care providers.

“While frankly, putting pressure on health-care systems to provide alternatives to these high-strength opioids to address patients with chronic pain. Alternatives that are perhaps more complex and more resource intensive than these types of prescriptions but we think on balance, less harmful than these high-strength formulations.”

In a statement, the health minister’s office did not address the potential for a recall of high-strength opioids. Instead, they said the ministry has approved supervised consumption sites and more funding for provinces hit hardest by the opioid crisis.

“Minister Petitpas Taylor often says the opioid crisis is the file that keeps her up at night. We have reintroduced harm reduction as a key pillar to fight the opioid crisis. We have approved over 25 supervised consumption sites and provided additional funding to provinces hardest hit by the crisis. We will continue to take action to turn the tide on this crisis,” the statement read.

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