Examining factors that shape use and access to diverted prescription opioids during an overdose crisis: A qualitative study in Vancouver, Canada

J Subst Abuse Treat. 2021 Nov;130:108418. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2021.108418. Epub 2021 Apr 20.


Objective: Prescription opioid (PO) diversion is widely regarded as a driver of overdose mortality. However, less is known about the rationale for using diverted POs during an overdose epidemic and how contextual factors (e.g., poverty, drug policies) may affect this practice. Therefore, we sought to examine this phenomenon.

Method: We conducted qualitative interviews with 24 participants who accessed diverted POs in Vancouver, Canada. Participants were recruited from ongoing cohort studies of people who use drugs (PWUD).

Results: Participants preferred a variety of POs due to their known contents and lower overdose risk compared to street drugs and used them for pain relief and pleasure. Participants reported barriers in accessing POs from physicians, with some being cut off or having insufficient prescriptions. Prices for diverted POs varied and affected access among impoverished participants. These access challenges led some to acquire fentanyl. Some participants reported concerns over the contents of counterfeit pills, while others relied on trusted sources or using visual cues to identify legitimate pills.

Conclusions: Our findings demonstrate that diverted POs are being used by PWUD with the goal of reducing opioid-related harms, although PO use comes with challenges associated with limited accessibility and risks posed by counterfeit pills. Poverty also limited PO accessibility, leading some to purchase more toxic, yet affordable, street drugs. Given the risks and barriers affecting people seeking to use diverted POs, our findings emphasize the need for the continued implementation and evaluation of safer drug supply initiatives, including those providing access to various drug types.

Keywords: Counterfeit pills; Drug policy; Overdose epidemic; Poverty; Prescription opioid diversion; Safer supply.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Canada
  • Drug Overdose* / drug therapy
  • Drug Overdose* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / drug therapy
  • Prescriptions


  • Analgesics, Opioid