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A frightening new statistic sheds light on how the deadly opioid crisis is impacting Canadian youth.

The recreational use of opioids among junior high and high school students during the past year in Ontario has surged from 12.7% in 2021 to 21.8% in 2023, an increase of 9.1%, according to the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey.

The previous two-year increase was only 1.7% when the use of opioids within the past year among students increased from 11% to 12.7% between 2019 and 2021.

The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey has been surveying students in grades 7 to 12 in Ontario since 1977. As the longest ongoing school survey in Canada and one of the longest in the world, its purpose is to analyze trends in drug use, mental health, physical health, bullying, gambling, and other risk behaviours among Ontario students.

While 21.8% of students between grades 7 and 12 reported nonmedical opioid use within the last year, 26.4% of the same cohort have tried opioids for a nonmedical purpose at least once in their lives. The only type of “drug” analyzed with a higher lifetime usage for students was alcohol at 52.5%, which 35.6% of students had used within the last year. 

Lifetime use of opioids was followed by vapes/electronic cigarettes at 25%, despite only 13.4% of students using a vape or electronic cigarette in the last year. Lifetime cannabis use was 20.7% among grade 7 to 12 Ontario students, while 17.6% of them had used it in the last year. 

While almost one in five students between grades 7 and 12 reported using an opioid pain reliever without a prescription in the last year, the numbers were much lower for other drugs. For example, only 2% of the same segment of students reported using amphetamines like Adderall recreationally without a prescription. Similarly, 2% of students reported using sedatives or tranquilizers without a prescription in the last year.

10.3% of Ontario students from grades 7 to 12 had used cough or cold medicine to get high in their lives, while 9.6% of them did so in the last year.

The percentage of students getting high with cough or cold medicine decreased with age. 13.4% of grade 7 students had done so in the past year, which plummeted to 6.8% of grade 12 students.

Six drugs have been tracked by the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey since 1999. Mushrooms, LSD, methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin have decreased from 22.8% being used in the last year by students between grades 9 and 12 in 1999 to only 5.6% in 2023.

The perceived availability of drugs was also something students were surveyed on. 

Despite opioids seeing the largest increase in use between 2021 and 2023, they remained the most difficult drug to obtain, according to students.

27% of Ontario students between grades 7 and 12 said that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain opioids. 45% said the same about cannabis, 48% about cigarettes, and 67% said it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain vaped or e-cigarettes, mirrored by an equal 67% that said the same of alcohol. 

The Ontario Drug Use and Health Survey began tracking opioid usage for students between grades 7 and 12 in 2007 when 20.6% of students had used it at least once during the last year. This continually decreased and reached its lowest rate in 2015, at 10%. It then increased to 10.6% in 2017 and followed increases every year thereafter.

In 2016, London, Ontario became Canada’s first city to have an official safe supply facility

In 2015, 728 Ontarians died of opioid-related mortality. This number increased every year until 2021 when 2,858 Ontarians died of using opioids. In 2022, the number fell slightly to 2,531. However, death data for 2022, the most recent year provided by Public Health Ontario, is preliminary and subject to change.

42.2% of students between grades 7 to 12 in Ontario report using no drugs or alcohol at all during the past year.