Recreational prescription drug use among Ontario’s youth has nearly doubled in the past five years, according to a new report.

Nearly 22 percent of students in grades 7–12 reported using prescription painkillers last year for non-medical purposes, up from 11 percent in 2019 and 12.7 percent in 2021, a newly released report from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found. .

The increase accounts for a 71 percent surge in prescription drug use between 2021 and 2023.

The drugs of choice were Percocet, Percodan, Tylenol #3, Demerol, Dilaudid, OxyNeo, and Codeine, according to the report, which uses data gathered through a survey distributed by the CAMH to more than 200 schools in the province every other year.

Teenage girls are “significantly more likely” than teenage boys to report using these drugs non-medically, with 26 percent of female students admitting to using the drugs to get high compared to 18 percent of male students.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Prescription drug use is not the only drug to grow in popularity, however.

While the use of alcohol and nicotine products have either stayed the same or decreased, the use of over-the-counter cough or cold medication to get high has grown.

Related Stories

72 BC Doctors Sign Letter Calling for Review of 'Safer Supply' Programs
Ottawa Considers New Round of Safer Supply Funding as RCMP Raises Alarm

Among students interviewed, 9.6 percent reported using the medication to get high in 2023, a 6 percent increase from the 3.6 percent of students who used it in 2021.

“One-in-10 students in grades 7-12 report using cough or cold medication to get high,” the report said, noting that both male and female students admit to abusing this form of drug.

Use of cold medication is especially popular with young teens, with 13.4 percent of Grade 7 students and 13.6 percent of Grade 8 students admitting they have used cough or cold medicine to get high in the past year.

“Use is more likely among younger students and significantly declines with grade—from 13 percent to 14 percent of seventh and eighth graders down to 6.8 percent of 12th graders,” the report says. “There are significant regional differences showing that students in the West region—8.4 percent—are least likely to use, while students in the North—13.2 percent—are most likely. The other two regions fall in-between.”

Alcohol, Nicotine, and Marijuana

While the usage of alcohol, nicotine products, and marijuana decreased between 2021 and 2023, the survey said that the prevalence of use increases with age.

With alcohol, 36 percent of students in grades 7-12 report drinking during the past year. While 7 percent of Grade 7 students reported drinking, that increased to 61 percent by Grade 12.

Smoking showed a marked decrease from earlier years of the survey, with only 1 percent of students in grades 7-12 smoking daily. That increases to 7 percent for Grade 12 students.

Approximately one-in-eight students reported vaping in the past year, but, overall, the popularity of vaping has waned since 2019, the study found. The prevalence of vaping also “significantly increases with grade,” from 5 percent of Grade 8 students to 22 percent of 12th graders.

While 75 percent of students surveyed “perceived great risk of harm” associated with smoking and 63 percent recognized the dangers of vaping, only 49 percent perceived marijuana as harmful.

The use of marijuana sat at 5 percent for Grade 8 students compared with 34 percent of Grade 12 students.

Procuring alcohol and drugs was also perceived as “easy” by many students. Sixty-seven percent of students surveyed said obtaining alcohol and vapes was easy compared to 48 percent for cigarettes and 45 percent for marijuana. Twenty-seven percent deemed it easy to get prescription drugs.

The perceived availability of vapes and prescription opioids increased significantly since the previous survey in 2021, the study found. By comparison, the perceived availability of cigarettes has decreased over the past two decades.

Teen Opioid Use and Safer Supply

Some experts have drawn links between safer supply programs and increased opioid use among youth, saying it increases access to highly addictive drugs.

Safer supply programs offer prescribed medications as a “safer alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply to people who are at high risk of overdose,” according to a Health Canada website.

The government philosophy is that supplying drug addicts with “safer” drugs will help address the country’s overdose crisis while connecting them with “other health and social services.”

Dr. Sharon Koivu, an addictions specialist and researcher at the London Health Sciences Centre, told The Epoch Times last year that she initially saw many benefits of the Safer Opioid Supply Program at the London InterCommunity Health Centre.

For example, patients with HIV were better connected with treatment as part of wrap-around services offered through the program. But then she saw the negative impacts as well.

“I started seeing the problems of diversion; more addiction, younger people using,” she said. “I also lived within one kilometer of the program and watched my neighborhood deteriorate.”

Teen opioid use is not just an Ontario issue. It plagues many provinces, including British Columbia.

Dr. Mark Mallet, a hospitalist at Victoria General Hospital in BC, is an outspoken critic of so-called safe supply drugs, saying such programming comes with a number of potential risks, including drugs being sold on the streets and an increased opioid access for youth.

“We know anecdotally that youth are becoming addicted to opioids via safer supply,” he told The Epoch Times in a recent email. “I personally know someone this has happened to, and I have spoken to a number of local doctors who have teenage patients this has happened to. I also have teenage kids who tell me they know other high school students who have become addicted to safer supply opioids.”

He has been vocal on the issue for months, penning op-eds and organizing doctors to speak out about the issue. He said numerous addiction medicine specialists have reached out to him and said they share his concerns.

Tara MacIsaac contributed to this report.