With the powerful painkiller’s patent set to expire in just over a week, Ontario’s health minister says it will be a “tragedy” if drug companies are given permission to sell generic versions of OxyContin in Canada.

Deb Matthews, along with other provincial and territorial health ministers, has urged Ottawa to step in as Health Canada weighs the merits and dangers of approving a generic form of OxyContin.

“We’ve seen the devastation caused by OxyContin. We do not need to repeat this story,” she warned in an interview with CTV’s Canada AM Tuesday.

Specifically, Matthews said she’s encouraging her federal counterpart Leona Aglukkaq to “instruct” the agency to delay the approval of any Oxy generics as they explore the safety risks associated with the painkiller. Her chief concern is that OxyContin alternatives will be just as addictive and prone to abuse as the original drug.

“They have a responsibility to determine whether or not this drug is safe,” she said from Toronto. “I’m asking them to interpret that broadly.”

For her part, Aglukkaq said in a statement that the decision to approve any drug in Canada is ultimately up to Health Canada’s scientists -- and not politicians. 

“I believe that if politicians start picking which drugs get on the market, they will be pressured to authorize drugs that are not proven to be safe or effective,” the statement read.

Placed on the market 17 years ago, OxyContin was designed by Purdue Pharma Canada to ease chronic pain by releasing a single dose of oxycodone into the body over several hours. But addicts soon found ways to abuse the formula, crushing the tablets into a fine powder that could be injected or snorted. According to Health Canada, the altered drug can produce a “heroin-like euphoria.”

As time wore on, public health officials warned that addiction to the prescription opiate had reached crisis proportions in some Canadian communities. The drug was linked to scores of opioid-related overdoses, pharmacy robberies and addiction on First Nations reserves.

OxyContin was discontinued last February, replaced with a new formulation called OxyNEO. The new drug, which still includes oxycodone, is designed to make abuse more difficult as the tablet is harder to grind into a powder. As well, a thick gel forms when the pill is submerged in liquid, a safeguard intended to prevent people from extracting oxycodone.

But with Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin patent set to expire on Nov. 25, Matthews is concerned that a generic version of the drug will surface, accompanied by multiple problems.

“I’ve heard from countless people who’ve been personally affected, almost always starting with a legitimate prescription,” said Matthews. “They were in pain, they were prescribed OxyContin and then the addiction took over their lives, causing extraordinary devastation.”

Non-medical use of prescription opioids appears to be on the rise, according to figures cited by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Roughly 18 per cent of Ontario students in grades 7 to 12 reported non-medical use of a painkiller in 2009. Just a year before, 1.5 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 admitted using prescription opioids “to get high.”

Matthews said she first wrote to Aglukkaq about generic OxyContin in July, and brought her concerns to fellow health ministers in September.

She added that she’s not yet heard anything from Health Canada.

“The clock is ticking on this,” she said.