To characterize the impacts of policies intended to improve opioid prescribing and prevent opioid-related overdose and death on individuals who take opioids.
We conducted a qualitative study using focus groups with 48 adults aged 18 years and over who had experience taking opioids. Participants were recruited from across Ontario, Canada, and separate focus groups were held for individuals taking opioids for chronic pain and individuals taking opioids for other reasons. We drew upon stigma theory to interpret participants’ accounts.
Following analysis and interpretation, we generated three themes describing the impacts of recently implemented opioid-related policies and harm reduction interventions on people who take opioids: ‘propagating stigma: addict as dominant status’, ‘loss of autonomy’ and ‘producing/reproducing structural vulnerabilities’. Specifically, participants characterize an environment in which ‘addict’ has become the dominant social identity ascribed to people who take opioids, and where relationships with providers have become strained as participants perceive themselves to be powerless when decisions regarding opioid use and pain management are made. These shifts in identity and relationships had negative repercussions when help-seeking and exposed larger vulnerabilities related to poverty and criminalization.
The introduction of opioid-related policies had unintended consequences for people who take opioids. Potential measures for mitigating these consequences include ensuring that people who take opioids are involved in all facets of policy development and implementation, integrating peer workers into the care of these individuals, and respecting patient agency when decisions about pain management and opioid use are made.