A public health based vision for the management and regulation of opioids

pills and powder on a table

By Brian Emerson and Mark Haden


Prohibition of the possession of opioids for non-medical purposes and medical/pharmaceutical commercialization of opioids are important contributors to the current opioid overdose epidemic. A new model of regulation is urgently required. Within the context of a public health framework, we explore supply control, demand reduction, health promotion, and harm reduction and describe an alternative regulatory model that includes access for medical and non-medical purposes.

Oversight of this proposed new system would include a control structure with an explicit public health mandate to minimize harms and maximize benefits of opioids. Medical access would be achieved through multi-disciplinary teams who would prescribe a range of opioids for 1) pain, 2) treatment for patients who develop opioid use disorder, and 3) other medical indications. Non-medical access could be achieved through models that would allow adults to purchase and use opioids for either supervised or take-home use.

We describe three possible models to support jurisdiction specific discussions around the world. The first includes education and training that could result in certification with a basic or advanced license or a purchase authorization card. The second includes mandatory training that allows general access to opioids, but excludes people with problematic opioid use. The third model has optional training and excludes people with problematic opioid use. Allowing for inclusion of people dependent on the current illegal market during transition is highlighted. With any of these models, this approach, while attending to illegal market drivers, would result in a greatly reduced illegal opioid market and its attendant toxic products, reduced violence and corruption, and at the same time, provide a sharper focus for medical use with more appropriate prescribing and indications.

This article was part of a Special Issue in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Read the full Special Issue here.