11/08/2012 17:04 EST | Updated 01/08/2013 05:12 EST

Generic OxyContin seen as option despite abuse concerns

The medical community is divided on whether the federal government should allow a cheaper generic version of OxyContin to be manufactured when the patent expires in two weeks.

Many experts, from addiction specialists to police chiefs, want Ottawa to say no to generic pharmaceutical companies who want to make their own versions of the controversial painkiller also known as oxycodone.

Dr. Melanie Willows knows the unpleasant side effects of OxyContin.

She's an addiction specialist at the Royal Ottawa Hospital and has had patients who were taking excessive amounts of the painkiller.

"At the peak a year or two ago it would be very common for us to see people taking four or six of those 80 mg tablets, or even eight or 10," she told CBC.

OxyContin was pulled from the market in March 2012 and replaced with OxyNeo, a reformulated tablet with a special coating that makes it more difficult for drug abusers to crush it down and modify for an immediate high.

Willows has noticed an improvement in the past few months, and she worries what will happen if OxyContin returns.

"I think those who have already been exposed to OxyContin will likely start taking it again if it's made available [again]. I think you'll have more new users. The most recent study of 2011 shows that 14 per cent of students Gr. 7 to Gr. 12 had taken an opioid non-medicinally," she said.

Still seen as effective pain reliever

Willows joins some provincial health ministers and police chiefs who are calling on the federal government to deny approval for a generic version of OxyContin.

But not everyone in the medical community agrees.

Dr. Peter Watson has worked as a pain specialist since the 1970s.

Many of his patients suffer from pain due to amputations, diabetic complications or shingles.

He has written federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq asking her to allow a generic version of OxyContin largely because the new OxyNeo doesn't work for all of his patients.

"Yesterday I was faced with eight patients who have lost control of their pain, after several years of control on OxyContin, after the switch to OxyNeo. This is a very disturbing thing to see," he said. "They are not drug addicts. They are patients in really the worst pain you can imagine.

"When I saw them, they were bedridden. Many of them were suicidal."

Mark Barnes owns a pharmacy in Ottawa's west end. He understands the hazards of OxyContin. His business was robbed this past February by someone looking for the drug.

"It was an attack on my family. My work family for that matter."

He also runs a methadone clinic whose clients include recovering OxyContin addicts.

Barnes and Watson say there are ways to allow for generic OxyContin as long as there are restrictions placed on who can prescribe it, who can dispense it and which patients should receive it.

"My advice would be you can allow the drug because there is a need there. But you can also restrict the access to the drug," said Barnes.

Health Canada notes that some of these restrictions would require provincial co-operation.

The OxyContin patent expires Nov. 25. Canada's chief medical advisor says the federal government is considering all of its options.