Illicit opioid use and its key characteristics: a select overview and evidence from a Canadian multisite cohort of illicit opioid users (OPICAN)

Can J Psychiatry. 2006 Sep;51(10):624-34. doi: 10.1177/070674370605101002.


Objectives: To summarize key characteristics and consequences of illicit opioid use from the literature and to present corresponding data from a multisite sample of illicit opioid users in 5 Canadian cities (OPICAN study).

Method: We undertook an overview of recent literature from North America, Australia, and Europe. We obtained data from the multicity OPICAN cohort study, which consisted of an interviewer-administered questionnaire, a standardized mental health instrument (the Composite International Diagnostic Interview Short Form for depression), and saliva-antibody tests for infectious disease (that is, HIV and hepatitis C virus). The baseline sample (n=679) was collected in 2002.

Results: Illicit opioid use in Canada and elsewhere is becoming increasingly heterogeneous in terms of opioid drugs used, with heroin playing an increasingly minor role; further, it predominantly occurs in a context of polydrug use (for example, cocaine-crack or benzodiazepines). Large proportions of illicit opioid users have physical and (or) mental health comorbidities, including infectious disease and (or) depression, and therefore require integrated interventions. Finally, morbidity risks among illicit opioid users are often predicted by social marginalization factors, for example, housing status or involvement in

Conclusions: Given the epidemiologic profile and high disease burden associated with contemporary forms of illicit opioid use, more effective treatment approaches are urgently needed in Canada and elsewhere. Specifically, treatment must adjust to the extensive polysubstance use realities, yet it must also more effectively address the complex physical and (or) mental health comorbidities presented by this high-risk population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs*
  • Multicenter Studies as Topic
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / rehabilitation*
  • Prevalence
  • Socioeconomic Factors


  • Illicit Drugs