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A prescription drug is a pharmaceutical drug that legally requires a medical prescription to be dispensed. The reason for medical prescriptions is for the potential scope of misuse for a variety of prescription drugs. Numerous prescription drugs become addictive when they are misused or abused. Common prescription drugs that become addictive are central nervous system depressants, opioid pain medication, and central nervous system stimulants. Typically, these are strong medications that require a prescription from a qualified medical professional. Opioids are used to relieve pain; depressants are used to relieve anxiety or help a person sleep. Stimulants are used for treating mental health disorders. Unfortunately, prescription drug misuse has become a large public health problem leading to addiction, overdose, and death.

Prescription drugs are misused in different ways. Typically, it is taking someone else's prescription medication, even if it is for a medical reason. Prescription medication is abused by using them in a way other than prescribed. For example, it is taking more than the prescribed dose, or taking it more often, crushing pills into powder to snort or inject the drug. Many people take their own prescriptions in a way that is not meant to be taken. For example, this includes taking more of the medication than prescribed or changing its form. Prescription drugs are abused for the intention to get high. These drugs are also mixed with alcohol and other drugs, which increases the risk of overdose.

There are significant dangers when prescription drugs are misused, and many people overlook the problem of prescription drug addiction. Drug abuse is often associated with illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. However, drug addiction is far more common with prescription medications like opioids, sedatives, and stimulants. Recreational drug abuse is a common problem and a primary factor why it leads to drug addiction. Many of these drugs are used with other substances like alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and hallucinogens. In addition, prescription drug addicts combine different prescription drugs to enhance the euphoric effects. Unfortunately, this increases the risk of a fatal and non-fatal drug overdose.

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How do Prescription Drugs Affect the Mind and Body?

Prescription drugs affect the mind in different ways. In the brain, neurotransmitters like dopamine send messages by attaching to receptors in the brain. The actions of these neurotransmitters and receptors cause the effects of prescription drugs. Opioids, stimulants, and sedatives act on different receptors in the brain and cause different effects. Prescription opioid pain medication binds to opioid receptors that respond to opiates. These receptors are found in areas of the brain and body involved in the perception of pain and pleasure. Prescription stimulants have similar effects to cocaine and cause a build-up of dopamine and norepinephrine to occur—the brain becomes accustomed to the unnatural dopamine levels in the brain. Prescription depressants make a person feel drowsy, calm, and relaxed, causing a sedating effect similar to ketamine or GHB.

Most prescription drugs taken as prescribed or directed do not cause any significant harm. However, abusing prescription drugs like pain medication, sedatives, and stimulants causes many negative effects on the body. Pain medication can make a person feel tired, sick, constipated, and cause respiratory depression as it slows down the central nervous system. Prescription stimulants can make a person feel paranoid, anxious, increase body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Depressants cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, sleepiness, disorientation, and lack of coordination. Overall, misusing any type of prescription causes adverse health effects and increases the risk of overdose.

Prescription drug abuse causes adverse cardiovascular effects that could be life-threatening. Too much of any drug is hard on the heart and can induce abnormal heart rates and other issues. Stress on the heart can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, and collapsed veins. Prescription drug abuse is also hard on the liver as it has to work harder to break down and process these chemicals. Prescription drug abuse can lead to liver damage, drug-induced liver disease, and other issues. As prescription drugs damage many organs in the body, they also affect the immune system. Most people addicted to drugs experience fatigue, sleeplessness, inactivity, and dehydration hurting the immune system.

The many types of prescription drugs have different street names. Street names for drugs are commonly devised for easy recognition by appearance, type, brand, or expected effects. Some names are given to these drugs based on the class or form of the drug, while others are used within a specific geographical area or subculture. There are a variety of opioid pain medications like morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl, and buprenorphine. Common street names include White Stuff, Oxy's, Hillbilly Heroin, Percs, Hydros, Norcos, Loads, Syrup, Tango and Cash, Demmies, Dillies, Bupes, and Subs.

Central nervous system depressants are commonly sold on the street, and this includes barbiturates and benzodiazepines. For example, clonazepam, diazepam, alprazolam, and temazepam. Street names include Barbs, Downers, Reds, Yellows, Tranks, Downers, Benzos, Candy, Sleeping Pills, Pins, K-Pins, Zannies, and Zanny Bars. Central nervous stimulants are amphetamines like Adderall, Dexedrine, and Ritalin. Common street names include Bennies, Truck Drivers, Uppers, Black Beauties, Speed, Skippy, Vitamin R, and Double Trouble.

Prescription drugs in Canada are regulated by the Federal Government under the Canadian Food and Drugs Act. Regulated prescription drugs in Canada are stimulants, painkillers, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and steroids. The regulation of prescription drugs in Canada is governed by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Prescription drugs are only legal when prescribed by a doctor, and it is illegal to possess prescription drugs without a valid prescription. It is also illegal to get multiple prescriptions filled by different pharmacies.

The History of Prescription Drugs in Canada

The pharmaceutical industry in Canada involves companies that create, market, and sell generic and brand-name prescription drugs. The first pharmaceutical company in Canada was established in 1879 in Toronto, Ontario. However, most drug companies operating in Canada today are foreign-owned and operated. In the 1940s, large-scale production of prescription drugs was created, and production was centralized. During the 1970s and 1980s, numerous Canadian-controlled generic drug companies emerged, yet most are foreign-owned. In 2011, the Canadian pharmaceutical market was the world's eighth-largest representing 2.6% of global pharmaceutical sales.

The Canadian pharmaceutical market was worth an estimated $29 billion in 2013. Generic drugs, like some generic prescription drugs, accounted for just over 66% of the 574 million prescriptions filled in Canada during that time. Up until 1939, the federal government had no power to limit the sale of drugs until amendments were made to the Food and Drugs Act. In 1951, it became mandatory for drug companies to submit safety data to Health and Welfare Canada (Health Canada). The Food and Drugs Act prohibits false advertising, and companies can only promote their products for conditions that have been approved by Health Canada.

Overall, the prescription drug industry is a massive business in Canada, and between 2004 and 2018, there has been a significant increase in pharmaceutical sales. In 2018, total pharmaceutical sales in Canada reached 28.3 billion. The pharmaceutical industry today develops and manufactures brand name and generic pharmaceuticals. According to Health Canada, pharmaceutical sales in Canada have a two percent share of the global market, making Canada the 10th largest world market. Brand-name products account for 79.3% of Canadian sales and 30% of prescriptions. Generic brands account for the remainder. From 2002 to 2017, total pharmaceutical sales in Canada have doubled to $27 billion. Approximately 87.7% are sold to retail drug stores, and 12.3% are sold to hospitals.

Prescription drug abuse has a long history in Canada, and the most commonly abused prescription drugs are Opioids, sedatives, and stimulants. Among Canadians who used opioid pain medication, for example, about 3% reported using them for non-medical purposes. In Canada, the prevalence of prescription sedative use is highest among older adults and higher among women than men. The prevalence of prescription stimulant use is highest among youth aged 15 to 19 and young adults aged 20 to 24. Prescription drug abuse in Canada impacts Canadians across the country.

According to research looking at opioid-related overdose cases in British Columbia, most people did not have a prescription for an opioid for pain when they overdosed. Roughly half of the cases had no opioid prescriptions for pain management in the past five years before an overdose occurred. Unfortunately, prescriptions for psychoactive medications were common among people who overdosed. Prescription drug abuse has been one of the fastest-growing drug problems in the country.

What are the Long-Term and Short-Term Effects of Abusing Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drugs cause various long-term and short-term effects depending on the drug, how it is used or misused, and if it is taken along with other drugs or alcohol. Prescription drugs like stimulants, pain medication, and sedatives have warning labels about the possible effects. For example, this includes drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, changes in depth perception, hallucinations, and increased or lowered blood pressure. The short-term effects of opioids include relaxation, drowsiness, constipation, slowed breathing, coma and death due to overdose. The long-term effects of opioids include addiction, painful withdrawal, seizures, and physical and psychological tolerance.

The short-term effects of central nervous system depressants include slowed brain functions, drowsy feeling, physical tolerance, and psychological tolerance. The long-term effects can include addiction, painful withdrawal, seizures, damage to organs, and death. The short-term effects of stimulants include affecting alertness, focus, causing sleeplessness, loss of appetite, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and increased body temperature. The long-term effects include paranoia, anxiety, insomnia, and extreme weight change.

Additionally, there are significant long-term health risks with abusing prescription drugs. Drugs like pain medication, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants are abused by Canadians and lead to dangerous health problems. Over time it can lead to a number of long-term health risks, and each prescription drug comes with its own set of risks. Some of the common long-term health problems include organ damage and failure, especially with the kidneys and liver. Prescription drug abuse leads to tolerance, which is characterized by needing more of the drug to experience its effects, and this causes physical dependence. In addition, drug abuse leads to psychological addiction and cravings, withdrawal symptoms, increased mental health symptoms, paranoia, depression, and decreased cognitive function.

Many of the long-term problems connected to prescription drug abuse are amplified when these drugs are mixed with other drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs that slow down breathing rate, such as opioids, alcohol, antihistamines, CNS depressants, or anesthetics, should not be taken together because it increases respiratory depression. Stimulants should not be sued with other medications, and combining these drugs can cause blood pressure to become dangerously high or lead to irregular heart rhythms. In addition, prescription drug misuse is linked to suicidal thoughts and ideation. According to research, older individuals are at an increased risk of suicidal ideation because of prescription drug abuse. The study cites older Americans, especially men, are more likely than the general population to think about suicide.

Prescription Drugs Overdose, does it Happen, and How Does it Occur?

Unintentional drug poisoning deaths can happen when a drug or drugs are taken on purpose with the intent to get high. In addition, prescription drug overdose can occur when a drug or drugs are accidentally taken or given to a person. Prescription drug overdose also occurs when drugs like pain medication, stimulants, and sedatives are used in combination with other drugs or alcohol. A drug overdose occurs when a person takes too much of a drug, and the body is unable to metabolize the substance. The increase in toxicity begins to shut down organs and affect the central nervous and brain function. For example, common symptoms include slowed or stopped breathing, changes in blood pressure or blood flow, ruptured vessels causing less oxygen to reach the brain. The individual could pass out, lapse into a coma and die.

Misusing prescription medication like pain medication, stimulants, and sedatives increases the risk of overdose. Most Canadians take medications only as prescribed by a doctor; however, numerous Canadians become addicted to these drugs and overdose. In addition, accidental prescription drug overdose occurs because prescriptions are mixed with other prescriptions or too much one drug is taken. Accidental overdose among children that find unused prescription drugs, and among older adults or seniors because of the number of prescriptions many older adults have. Immediate medical attention is required for a prescription drug overdose because doctors can administer medication to reverse overdose effects, use procedures to flush the stomach and stabilize the patient.

Overall, prescription drug overdose has different symptoms based on the type of drug it is, and each drug causes different psychological and physiological changes. Common prescription drug overdose symptoms include mental changes, like confusion, fogginess, rambling, rapid speech, and hyper-attention. Emotional changes occur like depression, aggression, or euphoria. The individual can experience hallucinations, delusions, suicidal ideation, increased body temperature, nausea, vomiting, and extreme sleepiness. The individual will appear conscious but is unresponsive and begins to pass out. Other symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, changes in breathing, and convulsions.

Many of the prescription drug overdoses in Canada are connected to prescription pain medication. According to Health Canada, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were a total of 20,484 opioid-related hospitalizations. Approximately 5,068 for opioid-related poisoning, 6,185 for adverse drug reactions from prescribed opioids, and 10,082 for opioid use disorders. In addition, between January 2016 and September 2020, there have been over 19,000 apparent opioid toxicity deaths. Western Canada and Ontario continue to be the hardest hit. Between January and September 2020, 85% of all opioid toxicity deaths occurred in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario.

Prescription Drug Addiction and Recreational Drug use in Canada

Prescription drug addiction begins for a variety of reasons, but most addictions start with a prescription for pain medication, central nervous system stimulants, or central nervous system depressants. Most prescription drugs can be used in a safe and standardized way, yet the potential for addiction is high. Overall, there are many factors that lead to prescription drug addiction, and the most common is remaining on prescription drugs longer than needed. Drugs like pain medication, stimulants, and sedatives create physical and psychological dependence that develops because of tolerance. Having a tolerance to one of these drugs means that more of the drug is consumed to meet the body's need for the drug. Unfortunately, the mind and body eventually develop a dependence resulting in withdrawal pain when the drug user stops taking the medication.

Left unchecked, drug dependence does lead to drug addiction like drug-seeking behavior. Other scenarios involve misusing prescription drugs because the addict is already abusing street drugs that are similar to the prescription drugs. Most prescription drug addicts are abusing other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, or alcohol. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most drugs affect the brain's reward circuit, causing euphoria as well as flooding it with dopamine. Surges of dopamine in the reward center of the brain cause the reinforcement of pleasurable yet unhealthy behaviors like using drugs or alcohol. Eventually, the brain adapts by reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to the drugs. The effects of the drugs are reduced, forcing the person to use more and seek other drugs.

These problems are experienced with recreational drug use, and this can also lead to drug addiction. Unfortunately, prescription drugs like pain medication, stimulants, and sedatives are misused by recreational drug users. According to a Canadian Drug Summary for Prescription Opioids, among the general population, 2.9% of Canadians reported misusing opioids for non-medical reasons. Per the summary for prescription sedatives, 1.4% of Canadians reported using sedatives only for the feeling/experience or to get high. In addition, the prescription stimulant report indicated that 19% of Canadians who used stimulants misused them for non-medical reasons.

According to Pan Canadian Trends in the Prescribing of Opioid and Benzodiazepines, the overall quantity of opioids dispensed in Canada as measured by defined daily doses per 1000 population declined by 10.1% between 2016 and 2017. In addition, the overall quantity of benzodiazepines dispensed in Canada declined by 5.9% between 2016 and 2017. In 2017, 21.3 million prescriptions for opioids were dispensed, which was slightly lower than in 2016. Overall, not everyone becomes addicted to prescription drugs. However, recreational use or misuse of prescription drugs increases the chances of becoming addicted.

Prescription Drugs Addiction Treatment and Drug Detox in Canada

Treating prescription drug addiction begins with detox, and typically this involves a medically supervised detox program. Withdrawal symptoms caused by opioid abuse, stimulant drug abuse, and sedative drug abuse have the potential to be life-threatening and painful. A medically supervised detox program manages withdrawal symptoms with the help of medical supervision and medications. However, medical detox is the first step. Overall, drug rehabilitation must take into account the type of drug used and the needs of the individual. Successful rehabilitation for prescription drug addiction needs to incorporate several components, including detox, counseling, and aftercare support. Multiple courses of drug rehab may be needed for a patient to make a full recovery.

Behavioral treatments are some of the most common approaches used to treat prescription drug addiction. This includes contingency management, cognitive behavioral therapy, 12-step facilitation, and motivational interviewing. Behavioral therapy helps patients stop drug use by changing unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior. In addition, patients are given teaching strategies to manage cravings and avoid cues and situations that could lead to relapse. Behavioral therapies take the form of individual therapy, family or group therapy, and helping the patient improve their personal relationships. In addition, it is important to follow through with aftercare support. An aftercare support program includes 12-step meetings, sober living homes, and peer support groups. Drug rehabilitation should be well-rounded, and no single form of drug rehab is right for every person.

According to Health Canada, the most common types of prescription drugs that can lead to problematic use include opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Between 2014 and 2015, a study of Canadian students in grades 7 through 12 found that psychoactive pharmaceuticals were the third most commonly used substance.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, opioid pain medications were used by an estimated 11.8% of the Canadian population. Also, a greater number of Indigenous peoples aged 15 and older who live off-reserve reported past-year use of opioid medication, compared to the general population. Among Canadians who used pain medication in 2017, 3% reported using them for non-medical purposes. Between January 2016 and December 2019, there were at least 15,393 opioid-related deaths in Canada, with the highest number of deaths occurring in 2018.

The use of prescription sedatives among the Canadian population has remained stable since 2013. In Canada, the prevalence of prescription sedative use is highest among older adults and among women. Between 2016 and 2017, the non-medical use of sedatives approximately doubled among students in grades 10 to 12. In addition, the use of prescription stimulants among the general Canadian population has recently increased from 1% to 2%. In Canada, the prevalence of prescription stimulant use is highest among youth aged 14 to 19 and young adults aged 20 to 24. Unfortunately, many post-secondary students report non-medical use of prescription stimulants to enhance academic performance.

According to an opioid and stimulant-related harms report in Canada, 27% of opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, and 20% involved stimulants. In addition, 42% of stimulant-related poisoning hospitalizations involved opioids, while 17% involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. Per Health Canada, the overall prevalence of psychoactive pharmaceutical use among Canadians aged 15 and older was 22%. The prevalence of past-year psychoactive pharmaceutical use in 2017 was higher among women than men and was lower among youth aged 15 to 19 than young adults aged 20 to 24 and adults aged 25 and over.

Opioid pain medication was the most used, with 3.5 million Canadians aged 15 and over reporting have used painkillers. In addition, of the Canadians who reported past-year stimulant use, 19% reported problematic use of such a drug. Overall, 4% of Canadians aged 15 and older reported experiencing at least one harm in the past year due to their illegal drug use. The prevalence of harm was higher among men than women, and a higher proportion of youth aged 15 to 19 and young adults aged 20 to 24 reported harm due to their illegal drug use.

Common Terminology for Prescription Drugs Use in Canada

Terms Definitions
Opioid Pain Medication Painkiller medications are a class of drugs that are used to treat mild to severe pain. These are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant and that work in the brain to produce a variety of effects.
Central Nervous System Depressants CNS depressants are medications that include sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics. These drugs slow down brain activity and are prescribed to treat anxiety, panic, acute stress, and sleep disorders.
Central Nervous System Stimulants Prescription stimulants are used to treat different mental health problems. The drugs increase the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine and create a stimulating effect similar to amphetamines.


Marcel Gemme, DATS

Marcel Gemme, DATS


on March 29, 2021

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Michael Leach, CCMA

Michael Leach, CCMA

Medically Reviewed

on March 29, 2021

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Michael Leach is a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, who has over 5 years of experience working in the field of addiction. He spent his career working under the board-certified Addictionologist Dr. Rohit Adi. His experience includes working with families during their loved one’s stay in treatment, helping those with substance abuse issues find treatment, and teaching life skills to patients in a recovery atmosphere. Though he has worked in many different areas of rehabilitation, the majority of his time was spent working one on one with patients who were actively withdrawing from drugs. Withdrawal and the fear of going through it is one biggest reason why an addict continues to use and can be the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process. His experience in the withdrawal atmosphere has taught him that regardless of what approach a person takes to get off drugs, there are always mental and emotional obstacles that need to be overcome. He believes having someone there to help a person through these obstacles can make all the difference during the withdrawal process.