With Canada battling a growing crisis of prescription drug abuse, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has released a 10-year plan aimed at curbing the misuse while also ensuring that those who legitimately need the medications can still access them.

The plan is entitled First Do No Harm: Responding to Canada's Prescription Drug Crisis, and is aimed at highlighting what’s needed to address the problem of prescription drug abuse.

The plan calls for the creation of a countrywide surveillance system that would track how powerful medications are being prescribed.

As well, it urges new legislation to allow such surveillance to take place, as well as to prevent doctors and pharmacists from prescribing painkillers indiscriminately.

The plan also calls for changes to ensure that prescription medication addicts can get the help they need.

The strategy takes aim at the three most troublesome classes of prescription medications: painkillers in the opioids family, such as oxycodone, hydromorphone and fentanyl; stimulants such as amphetamines; and sedatives, such as clonazepam and pentobarbital.

Dr. Andrea Fulran, of the University Health Network, said the strategy is a step towards eliminating overdose deaths.

“My vision, and I think the vision of everybody that’s involved in this national strategy, is to have zero overdose deaths,” she said. “That’s unacceptable that people are dying because of an overdose of a prescription drug that is supposed to help them.”

The use of prescription medications has skyrocketed in the last decade in this country. Canadians are now the second largest per capita consumers of prescription opioids, right behind the United States. And their rate of use in Canada is increasing faster than south of the border.

While many patients using these drugs take them for legitimate pain-relief needs, many others use them entirely for non-medical, recreational uses. The result has been a spike in addiction, accidental overdoses, suicide and drug-related crime.

In Ontario, for example, there was an almost 250 per cent increase in the number of emergency room visits related to narcotics between 2005 and 2011. Those visits included everything from intoxication to withdrawal to overdose.

As well, opioid-related deaths doubled in just over 10 years in Ontario, from 13.7 deaths per million in 1991 to 27.2 per million in 2004.

Until now, only a handful of provinces including Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, have had extensive prescription drug monitoring programs. These programs allow a pharmacist to see whether a patient received a similar prescription recently, or from more than one doctor. Ontario only recently introduced its own drug monitoring database.

This new strategy creates the first pan-Canadian plan to deal with prescription abuse.

It calls on governments to reconcile the scattered provincial laws that affect prescription drugs, and the collection of prescribing data. The strategy authors say that the discrepancies in federal, provincial and territorial privacy law is “a significant challenge” that limits how personal data are collected, stored and shared.

The plan urges increased resources so that law enforcement can raise awareness and promote the safe storage of medication, instead of just dealing with the fallout from abuse.

It also recommends better access for addicts to treatment -- especially in remote First Nations where some communities have reported that the overwhelming majority of adults are addicted.

Everyday Canadians can also do their part, the CCSA says, by researching and understanding the risks of their prescription medications, and resolving not to share their medications with family members or friends.

“Many prescription drugs that are harmful and misused come from the medicine cabinets of friends and families, so proper storage and disposal of prescription drugs can effectively reduce misuse and diversion,” the CCSA says.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq welcomed the unveiling of the strategy, saying prescription drug abuse is an issue that governments, professional associations and other stakeholders all have a responsibility to help address.

“The government of Canada recognizes that the abuse of prescription drugs is a serious health and safety issue that is having a devastating effect on individuals, families and communities across Canada,” she said in a statement.

“Our government is committed to doing its part and will review the recommendations put forward by the CCSA.”

With a report by CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip