Sask.'s pharmacy college considers ban on non-prescription codeine products

In most of Canada, low-dose codeine medications are available from pharmacies without a prescription. That could be changing in Saskatchewan.

Health Canada considering making all codeine products prescription-only

Tylenol No. 1 required a prescription in Manitoba as of February 2016. Now Saskatchewan's College of Pharmacy Professionals is considering a ban on selling non-prescription codeine products. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's regulatory body for pharmacists is eyeing a ban on the sale of non-prescription codeine products in pharmacies. 

Codeine is a narcotic found in pills and cough syrup used to relieve mild to moderate pain, according to a reference guide from the Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy Professionals. 

It can also be mixed with other medications to increase the effect of a drug for the user. 

Under federal drug rules, low-dose codeine medications are those that don't contain more than eight milligrams of the drug per tablet, and must be mixed with at least two other ingredients. These medications must have warning labels.

Tylenol No.1 is an example. 

These types of medications are regulated as "exempted codeine products," and in most of Canada are available from pharmacies without a prescription. 

But that could be changing in Saskatchewan. 

College expects final decision in coming months

In its April 2018 newsletter, the college said its council recently discussed the availability of these products. 

"In response to the opioid crisis, developments in other provinces, growing member concerns over misuse of these products and recent information demonstrating little if any therapeutic benefit, Council agreed in principle to ban the sale of these products from pharmacies," it reads. 

"This means that we will submit a proposed regulatory bylaw amendment to stakeholders for consultation before finalizing this decision."

Reached on Tuesday, the college declined to provide an interview on the matter. 

However, it said the next step is to consult with stakeholders with the plan to make a final decision in the coming months. 

The regulatory college for doctors in Saskatchewan has already pledged its support to making codeine products available through prescription only. 

Current codeine rules

According to the pharmacy college's reference manual, someone buying a low-dose codeine medication can expect counselling from a pharmacist in order to specify what ailment they are using the drug for, and the last time they purchased such a product.

Pharmacy staff also have a database that allows them to record the sales of these medications. If they see the same customer recently bought the drug, they can refuse to sell them more. 

Health Canada considering change to prescription status

Health Canada is also mulling similar changes when it comes to access to codeine medications. 

Last November, it published a regulatory notice that it was considering making a change so that all pills and cough syrups containing codeine would require a prescription. 

"The Department is currently reviewing the comments received and it will use these comments to determining how to proceed with any potential changed with respect to low-dose codeine," reads a statement from the agency.

As of February 1, 2016, the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Manitoba changed its regulations so people require a prescription to obtain products like Tylenol No. 1.  

Saskatchewan's pharmacy college said in an email to CBC News that the matter of prescription status is under consideration and no decision has been made yet as to where it will fall under drug schedule.

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About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at stephanie.taylor@cbc.ca

With files from Roxanna Woloshyn