The Opioid Addiction Crisis in Canada – Key Facts & Information

The Opioid Addiction Crisis in Canada – Key Facts & Information

What Is An Opioid Addiction?

An opioid addiction occurs when both the mind and body begin to feel psychologically and physically dependent on a group of illicit substances called opiates, or opioids.

Addiction to opioids stretches back hundreds of years. Initially derived from the opium poppy plant, over the last few centuries opium has been synthesized into morphine, which became highly addictive at an alarming rate. In 1853, doctors began administering morphine via injection to their patients, and in an effort to slow the rate of morphine addiction, heroin was introduced as a diluted form of this opioid. Initially it was believed that heroin would ultimately be less addictive than morphine, though this was quickly dismissed as addiction rates to heroin began skyrocketing as early as 1903.

What Are Opioids?

Vancouver Opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs most commonly used for pain reduction and pain management, commonly after major medical surgeries or traumatic accidents. Most often a doctor will prescribe opioids to be used in moderation to alleviate symptoms of pain. Most times this will have no ill effects, however in some individuals, an addiction to opioids is more likely to occur than others. There’s no clear way of telling if somebody will develop an addiction to opioids. Up to 10% of Canadians prescribed opioids for medical reasons admitted that their drug use ended up becoming problematic. Currently almost 12% of Canadians are using prescribed opioid pain relievers.

The Difference Between Prescription Opiates and Street Opiates

Prescription opiates are prescribed by a doctor, a physician or specialist, and have a controlled dosage. Examples of prescription opiates are:

  • Oxycodone
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Vicodin
  • Percocet
  • Fentanyl

These are the most commonly abused prescription opiates, and though fentanyl is found readily on the streets, its initial use was designed for medical purposes as an alternative pain management.

Street opiates tend to be more synthetic as they’re derived from these prescription opiates, and the most commonly abused street opiates include:

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl

Unfortunately without proper drug testing and analysis it’s nearly impossible to determine what actually makes up the drugs which are found on the street. In recent years there’s been an alarming rate in the increase of fake prescription drugs which are being sold as one thing, and made up of filler ingredients with minute amounts of fentanyl to mimic the drug’s effects. It’s in this way that so many people are unknowingly becoming addicted to fentanyl and heroin.

Opioid Addiction Causes

Opioid Statistics

Being that opioids are addictive in a plethora of ways – physically, emotional, and psychologically – there is an increased risk of addiction to this class of substances when comparing opiates to other harmful substances such as cocaine, crystal meth, or even alcohol. Opioids chemically bind themselves to our brains’ pleasure receptors, and we become addicted to the endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin they release in our brains.

Physical drug dependence: A physical drug dependency occurs when the user begins to develop a tolerance to their drug use, and abstaining from use begins to cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. These physical drug withdrawal symptoms from opiates include nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, muscle pains, chills, fever, and fluish aches and pains. The physical withdrawal from opioids is one of the hardest things to overcome, and lasts roughly 7-10 days.

Emotional drug dependence: Looking at an addict who is seeking happiness through drug use, it’s easy to see how one can become emotionally dependent on drugs to achieve that ‘feel-good’ sensation. While the physical and physiological factors of boosting serotonin and other endorphins come into play with drug use, users become emotionally dependent as well as physically dependent on any number of substances. The dangers of opioids is the increased risk of a physical addiction alongside the emotional dependency. An emotional drug dependency can last years, or even decades, if the user is not aware of the reasonings behind their drug use, and actively working towards finding healthy ways to cope with emotional distress.

Psychological drug dependence: To become psychologically addicted to drugs, one believes that they cannot function properly without it. For instance, somebody who has been prescribed morphine for pain management after a traumatic surgery or accident, who continues to take the prescription after the recommended time – and believes that they now need this substance to continue with their quality of life. While they may not harbour any knowledge of a physical dependence, the feeling of ‘needing’ that drug to get through the days is a psychological condition – their brain has convinced them of this need. Sadly, it is hard for this addiction to be overcome, and when prescriptions run out, people become desperate to get that fix. Often times after an opioid prescription has run out, a person will turn to the streets to seek out illicit means of obtaining these drugs. Failing to find what they’re seeking, it’s these times which make people turn to alternatives such as heroin or fentanyl.

Addiction Through Genetic Predisposition or Environment

In a previous blog post we talked about how some people are genetically predisposed to addiction due to a number of factors, including both genetics and environment. There is scientific evidence to base that 50% of addiction is through genetic predisposition.

Alternatively, environment is a major contributing factor in developing an addiction. When a person is surrounded by drugs and alcohol, they turn to what they know when it comes to coping, or managing their day to day life stressors.

Opioid Addiction Statistics

    1. Anywhere from 21 to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids will end up abusing or misusing them.
    2. Roughly 8 to 12 prescribed opioids will develop an opioid abuse disorder.
    3. 4 to 6 percent of these prescribed opioids will transition to heroin or fentanyl.
    4. Up to 7 people per day will overdose on opioids

Risk Factors For Developing an Opioid Addiction

There is no magic cocktail of factors which will guarantee an addiction to any substance, but when it comes to the potential for developing an opioid addiction, there are a few common factors found among addicts.

  • Hereditary disposition to addiction

If somebody in your immediate family has struggled with an addiction to any drugs, alcohol, or illicit substances in their lives, your risk of developing an addiction is increased exponentially through both genetics and environmental factors.

  • Underlying mental illness

Often times a person attempts to self-medicate through drug abuse, especially during times of misdiagnosis, or not seeking out proper mental health supports when they’re suffering. It can be easier to attempt to fix the problem on your own rather than address it, or perhaps the resources are not readily available, and a person finds it easier to medicate with street drugs to numb their discomfort.

  • Abusing a prescription

With 12% of Canadians receiving a regular opioid prescription (as of 2017), that is a significant amount of people in our country who are using opioids. Unfortunately it’s easy to abuse a prescription, and when one has underlying risk factors for addiction and receives a prescription, it can be a recipe for disaster.

  • Poverty and unemployment

Poverty and unemployment are two of the largest contributing factors in opiate addiction to date. When it comes to living on the streets the conditions are horrendous, dangerous, and dirty. Many people who are forced into homelessness due to unforeseen disasters will end up turning to drugs to handle the reality of their lives on the streets, at times fighting for their lives. It’s at this point that they seek anything to numb the world around them.

  • Poor coping mechanisms

When our brains are developing we are taught the basic coping mechanisms to be able to get through life safely. However, not everybody in their youth are taught these coping mechanisms, and a number of people shut down when it comes to conflict, or are never taught proper decision-making processes, or any other vital ways to navigate the world. Oftentimes the world becomes overwhelming, and drugs become an escape when they don’t understand how to process their emotions and act rationally.

Oxycodone Addiction: Signs and Symptoms

Oxycodone is an incredibly common opioid which is prescribed for pain relief, which is found in OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, and Vicodin. When taken properly, oxycodone can help if you are suffering from any major pain. However, commonly users will become fond of its soporific effects, and while a percentage of people won’t seek out any more after the prescription is out, a handful of them will – and drugs like oxycodone can be easily found on the streets.

An addiction to oxycodone can creep on the user and grab hold before they’re aware of what’s happening. Unfortunately opioids are some of the most physically addictive classes of drugs out there, and it’s generally the withdrawal symptoms that will alert the user to their own addiction. Most often you hear stories of people who are casually using heroin or opiates, who go without for a day or a few hours, and end up with what they assume is a stomach flu. The opiates cease the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms for the user (stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, chills, aches and pains) and it’s at this moment the user has an awakening and realizes they’ve become addicted.

Sometimes these symptoms are harder to spot in others, but oxycodone addiction follows the same symptoms as most addictions:

  • Moody/morose
  • Becoming secretive
  • Poor hygiene
  • Being secretive
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chills and difficulty regulating temperature
  • Sniffling
  • Resorting to criminal behaviour
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations

The withdrawal effects of oxycodone can make one absolutely miserable. It is recommended that if you’re attempting to withdraw from opioids, you do so in a supervised medical facility to ensure safety.

The Dangers of Prescription Opioids

The dangers of prescription opioids are visible nearly everywhere you go, with the number of homeless people turning to the streets to feed their addiction. It’s rare that one will start out as an addict. Unfortunately with rampant prescriptions for opioids, access to these narcotics has never been easier. The danger of prescription opioids is unfortunately when the prescription runs out.

Opioids are able to take over one’s life, nearly instantaneously. While the intended effects of these drugs are to negate legitimate physical pains, the side effects of peace and relaxation become a priority.

When the prescription runs out is when people will look for other sources to achieve that high, and during our current opioid epidemic, there has been an influx of fentanyl on the streets being laced into any number of narcotics, even being sold and marketed as opioids such as Percocet, Vicodin, or OxyContin. When taken with benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanax, or Ativan), fentanyl is fatal. Most times even Narcan won’t reverse an overdose when fentanyl is mixed with benzodiazepines.

Opioid Overdose Symptoms

Do you know the signs of an opioid overdose? Since 2016 and 2019, it’s estimated that Canada has experienced over 12,800 opioid-related overdose deaths. Knowing what to look out for can potentially save somebody’s life if they’re experiencing an overdose.

The first step to reversing an overdose is to properly administer Narcan. While Narcan kits are readily available to be distributed nearly everywhere in Canada, proper administration is key. Narcan training is available online here. Narcan can be effective at slowing and delaying the overdose symptoms, but not always a guarantee to stop an overdose.

Overdose symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Shallow breathing

Generally as the drugs sit into the system, one’s breathing will shallow, until stopping completely. At this point there is no oxygen being transmitted throughout the body and the person will begin to turn blue.

  • Dilated pupils

Dilated pupils are another sign of a potential overdose, though opioids tend to dilate the pupils as the drugs set in. If in conjunction with any other opioid overdose symptoms, dilated pupils are a cause for concern.

  • Vomiting

While vomiting may not necessarily always indicate an overdose, it can be a sign.

  • ‘Nodding off’

Nodding off is different than simply falling asleep. When one begins to ‘nod’ on opioids, it goes hand in hand with the shallow breathing, and if this is not recognized in time the person will not wake up.

  • Slurred speech

If somebody is having difficulty articulating themselves, their muscles are likely not functioning properly, and oxygen is not flowing through their vital organs.

Opioid Overdoses in Canada Since 2016

Year Cases
2016 5683
2017 7917
2018 8444
2019 7383

These numbers reflect both the deaths from known opioid overdoses, and opioid-related deaths in Canada since 2016, the year after an opioid epidemic was declared. It was in 2015 we saw an influx of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl beginning to flood the streets, and users began dying at alarming rates.

Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 crisis shutting borders, import of illicit drugs has caused an increase in synthetic opioids to be introduced as an alternative, and more and more drugs are being cut with fentanyl, or containing higher amounts of fentanyl. As fentanyl is far more potent than other opiates, dosage when using cannot be regulated easily, and while the 2020 overdose numbers are still being recorded, it can be estimated that overdoses in 2020 will be higher than years previously, following the trend of increased opiate deaths.

Getting Help With Opioid Addiction

Help & Support with Opioids

Do you know somebody, or are you suffering from the ill effects of an opioid addiction? You aren’t alone. It’s important to remember we have been living in the midst of an opioid crisis for the last few years, with addiction numbers and overdoses absolutely skyrocketing throughout Canada. Opioids are everywhere, and where opioids are, addiction follows. How can our team help you or a loved one beat an opioid addiction?


If a loved one is suffering from opioid addiction, our team will host an intervention. Our intervention process involves you and your ‘intervention team’ at every step of the way. This includes creating intervention scripts for all involved, having an interventionist facilitate the dialogue for success, and arranging transportation to the next step of the journey in recovery, the detox and rehabilitation programs.


The first step towards quitting opiates is the detox stage, which is physically the most uncomfortable when looking at the withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid detox. However, these are not unmanageable. Our team arranges for transportation and a bed at a facility designed to help properly detox from opioids with the most effective comfort management.

Rehab and Counselling

After the drug has left the system, the next step to ensure long-term sobriety is to properly delve into the reasons why one would use drugs as an escape, and this takes long-term counselling and oftentimes rehabilitation to gain a new perspective on oneself. Our team arranges for a space to be waiting available in a drug rehabilitation center.

Contact Us Today

Ready to make a difference in your life, or the life of a loved one, and be done with opioids once and for all? Contact our team, and we’ll begin planning your new life – free of opioids, and free of addiction.

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