Winnipeg: A city wide awake on crystal meth
Social worker says crystal meth 'is absolutely rampant' in Winnipeg
CBC News • Jill Coubrough October 23, 2017
As night settles over Winnipeg, more and more people are staying awake, some for days, riding the roller-coaster that is crystal meth.
Police, health professionals and other front-line workers are feeling the pressure as methamphetamine use in the city reaches new highs.
It's being bought and sold in every part of the city, even online, and some contend the abuse and prevalence of the drug is nearing crisis level.
"It's as easy as getting a coffee from Tim Hortons," Jamie Whitford said. "It's out of control."
The 30-year-old has been clean from meth for four days. He is just coming off of what he calls "the worst binge" of his life.
"I was basically awake for 16 days," he said, adding he was injecting the drug and remaining high for six to eight hours before shooting up again.
'I was basically awake for 16 days.' - Jamie Whitford, meth addict
Some of that time was spent getting high at a downtown bath house before eventually waking up in a small red cube: a little free library on Wellington Crescent.
"I'm always in the gutter at the end of the day," he said. "I am always underneath bridges or sitting in really seedy parks."
His "meth nightmare" began when he was 16 and living in transitional housing in West Broadway after spending his childhood bouncing between dozens of foster homes.
He started hanging out with an older crowd and his experimentation with cocaine soon escalated to meth, he said.
"I was hooked within a week," he said. "It was a text away, a phone call away."
By 17, he was homeless, and he turned to selling himself to pay for his next high.
"I didn't notice I was being trafficked until I noticed there was a heavy gang presence in the house that I was working out of," Whitford said.
"People were pressuring me for money and pressuring me to go and see a whole bunch of different people and dealers were coming around all the time for re-up money" to buy more drugs.
A graffiti-like tattoo runs up Whitford's right forearm. He explains he was "tagged" by gang members while he was sleeping off a high.
He wants to get clean and has just completed detox but he knows the next several weeks, while he waits for a bed to open in rehab, will be tough.
"I can't go out anywhere by myself," he said. "I'm still very tempted."
Crossing all demographics
But crystal meth is not confined to Winnipeg's core or notorious neighbourhoods. Whitford and experts say it's penetrating all areas of the city and crossing all demographics.
"I've done crystal meth with people that you'd least expect it," Whitford said. "It has no preference. It doesn't care if you're rich, poor, homeless or in a house."
Robert Lidstone, 36, grew up in a loving family in suburban Winnipeg. His mother was a pediatric nurse and his father worked as a nuclear scientist.
His addiction to crystal meth began in 2006, while he was completing his master's degree in human geography. Lidstone was battling depression and tried the drug recreationally, he said. He was hooked on the third try.
"I never would have seen myself as someone who would develop a drug addiction," Lidstone said. "And certainly not someone who would end up homeless on the streets of the city that they grew up in."
The addiction has continued on and off for the last decade, forcing him to drop out of his PhD program at York University.
"When I was using I would be up for several days, probably typically three to four days," he said.
Those days would be spent seeking sex or reading newspapers and magazines in public libraries, he said.
Then the crash would set in; he'd find something to eat immediately and then sleep it all off in the closest place he could find.
"I have a such a distinct memory of walking through the food courts at Portage Place and City Place and staring at people eating and waiting until someone left, and if there were any leftovers, I'd kind of sneak over and gobble it up," he said.
He tried hard not to be seen.
"I was so deeply ashamed of where I had gone in life and I was so disgusted with myself."
Lidstone would make his way to an ATM vestibule, a public bathroom or a stairwell to sleep off the mental and physical exhaustion.
He is three months clean in his current recovery journey, this time helped by a recent diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder.
Throughout the course of his addiction and past stays in residential rehab he has come to learn his story isn't unique.
"I knew lots of people who came from professional backgrounds who struggled with these things, with meth," Lidstone said.
'Flooding the market'
Crystal meth is most commonly known as jib on Winnipeg streets. It's often sold in tiny plastic bags for people to smoke, snort, eat or inject.
It's becoming the stimulant of choice, according to experts, because the cost is low, the high is long and the accessible drug is also highly addictive.
The going rate for a point — a tenth of a gram — is $10 in Winnipeg. The high lasts upwards of 12 hours. Cocaine, which is more expensive, fades after 30 to 45 minutes, said Insp. Max Waddell, with the Winnipeg Police Service organized crime unit.
Meth began emerging in Winnipeg in the early 2000s but it wasn't until 2012 that police saw seizures of the drug "climb steeply," Waddell said.
Seizures of the drug rose from roughly 40 incidents in 2012 to more than 480 in 2016, an increase of 1,100 per cent.
Today, it's "flooding the market" because the cost to purchase large quantities of the drug has come down significantly in recent years, a Winnipeg police drug expert said at an education forum.
The price of a kilogram is roughly $20,000, down from $50,000. That's turned mid-level drug traffickers to high-level traffickers because they can buy more product, he said.
Even high-level cocaine traffickers are making the switch to meth because they can purchase two to three times the supply for their money.
The evolution of the internet, social media and the dark web are also making it easier for people to get their hands on crystal meth.
"It's really exposed people that maybe wouldn't necessarily have had that opportunity to obtain drugs such as meth," Waddell said.
While the toxic rock is easy to make with a slew of household products and cold medication, it's not being produced in the province in large quantities.
Police say roughly 80 per cent of the meth in the province is produced internationally and moved by cartels into Manitoba from countries such as Mexico.
"It's a big border. It's not always manned," Waddell said. "It's a big challenge for law enforcement."
Whitford predicts crystal meth use will continue to intensify with the decriminalization of marijuana. The loss of that revenue source will prompt dealers to look to meth as a means of securing their customer base, he said.
"The marijuana dealers, in order to keep their money coming in, their cash flow … they want to guarantee their clientele," he said.
More methamphetamine on Winnipeg streets comes with a host of alarming symptoms.
The Winnipeg Police Service recorded an eight per cent spike in property and violent crime this year over last year and officers attribute it largely to the rise in use of the highly addictive drug.
People will to go great lengths to secure their next high, Waddell said.
"That's why they're breaking into houses, they're stealing bikes and all this property — so they can take it, pawn it, sell it to get money," he said.
Calls related to methamphetamine, whether for an unfolding crime or someone in distress, are increasingly dangerous for front-line officers.
"The ability to stimulate one's body to the point that they really don't have control of themselves is putting a strain on the police because we are forced now to go into … potentially lethal encounters that we didn't have before," Waddell said.
Stimulants such as amphetamines can cause drug-induced psychosis characterized by paranoia, hallucinations and delusions that can result in irrational and aggressive behaviour, police and health professionals say.
Marion Willis sees the volatile effects of crystal meth every day.
"It is absolutely rampant," she said.
The founder of St. Boniface Street Links estimates more than 80 per cent of the 76 clients she works with are battling an addiction to crystal meth.
The aggression that comes with drug psychosis is the biggest problem at their various supportive housing units for those transitioning out of homelessness.
"We've had knives pulled on us lately. There's been threats of physical violence. It means more 911 calls for us," she said. "It leaves everybody feeling unsafe … never mind what it does for the client. It really adds another layer of hopelessness for them."
Willis has had clients in and out of the emergency room three times in one night because of drug-induced psychosis.
She said there is no where to take these individuals for stabilization and many wind up in custody at the Remand Centre.
"We don't have resources to address the meth [crisis] — and I'm going to call it a crisis — that this city currently faces."
It's also why more and more of Winnipeg's homeless people are creating camps and migrating to suburban areas — they are scared for their safety, Willis said.
On the other hand, the ability to stay up for days on crystal meth is a survival tactic for some who are homeless, Whitford said: You don't have to sleep on the street or worry as much about being victimized if you're awake.
Explosion of syringes
Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse specialist with the harm reduction team Street Connections, said 40 to 50 per cent of the people her team works with use crystal methamphetamine, and most of them inject the drug.
The number of sterile needles they hand out is expected to hit 1.5 million this year — triple what they gave away three years ago.
Among those picking up the used needles is the Bear Clan, a North End grassroots street patrol group.
Founder James Favel said they see the evidence of crystal meth use in the syringes and drug baggies they remove from the community.
"I think the rise in crystal meth is a real epidemic that needs to be addressed," he said.
The Bear Clan Patrol has picked up roughly 3,000 needles from May to October this year. Favel said he didn't see many in the past, but now they seem to be everywhere.
In August, his team unearthed 500 discarded needles inside the garage of a boarded-up home on Flora Avenue.
"What those syringes represent in the way of pain is immense," Favel said. "You have to keep getting high to chase that pain away.… We've got a lot of people who are really suffering here and it's growing like mad."
Favel said he has friends who have lost their battle with meth addiction and said one of his own Bear Clan members left the group last year for treatment.
While overdose deaths related to the stimulant are relatively rare Manitoba has seen a cluster of deaths in recent years.
There was only one meth-related overdose death in Manitoba from 2007 to 2014, according to data from the past decade. However, in 2015 the drug killed five people and showed up on five other toxicology reports as a contributing cause of death.
In 2016, four more people died and it was a contributing factor in 21 deaths.
This year to date, one person has died from a meth-related overdose and the drug has showed up in the toxicology reports of at least 16 other deaths, the Office of the Medical Examiner said.
Jamie Whitford doesn't want to be one of those statistics. He is currently on the wait-list for a bed in a residential treatment facility, but getting there won't be easy.
The wait for residential treatment is up to eight weeks for men in Winnipeg. For women, it can be 212 days, Addictions Foundation of Manitoba staff said.
The number of people who identified methamphetamine as a problem before entering treatment in Winnipeg last year was close to double what it was the year before, the Addictions Foundation said.
The province's 14 other publicly funded addictions centres have seen a 600 per cent increase in meth users in the last five years.
Last year, 744 people said they used methamphetamine in the year before entering treatment, compared to 102 people in 2012.
Manitoba continues to invest in addictions services, a spokesperson for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in an email.
"We know the impact of drug addiction can be devastating," the statement said. "Work is underway to develop a mental health and addiction strategy to improve the access and co-ordination of services in Manitoba, and we expect recommendations at the end of this year."
The province has increased the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba's budget by $985,500.
The statement made no mention of a strategy specifically for crystal meth.
In 2005, the NDP government formed a the crystal meth task force to restrict and track the supply of products used to make meth, increase public awareness and enhance addictions services.
Many say it's clear more needs to be done.
Whitford's wish is for more accessible treatment.
Days after his interview with CBC News he relapsed.
When it comes to the boom in discarded needles, James Favel said safe injection sites would mitigate that.
Willis said the meth problem speaks to the inadequacies of mental health services in the province.
"What we've come to understand about almost every single client that we have that is addicted to meth is that almost all of them … have poor mental health or a diagnosable mental illness," she said.
The province needs accessible mental health support, stabilization units for those suffering drug-induced psychosis and a longer, more tailored approach to addiction treatment rather than the blanket 12-step model currently used for alcohol addiction, Willis said.
"I think government needs to understand that the economic health of this city and this entire province is, in part, contingent on the social health of the people," Willis said.
'I'm not giving up'
Treatment of his bipolar disorder has better equipped him in his recovery from meth addiction, he said.
"We all risk actually paying more in the longer term, both financially and in terms of the human costs, if we don't wise up and deal with this problem in a more effective way," he said.
But housing is necessary before treatment and recovery are possible, said Lidstone, who credits Morberg House with creating a stable environment for him.
Morberg House offers supportive housing for people who have been homeless. Its wholistic approach includes mental health supports and unlike at some shelters, residents are not immediately kicked out if they relapse.
Lidstone has since signed a lease for his own apartment and spends his days focusing on his health and freelance writing.
Meanwhile, Whitford is waiting to be released from custody.
Using drugs was a breach of his court-conditions for a past weapon's charge and he was taken to the Remand Centre after he relapsed.
He's admittedly groggy and his lips are covered in chemical burns as the meth he smoked and injected, days earlier, make their way out of his skin.
He hopes sharing his story will shed light on a problem he still wants to beat.
"I think people need to hear other people's stories to see that they're not alone in the fight against addiction," he said. "I'm not giving up."