An Ottawa mother said her son's addiction to prescription drugs first oxycodone, and now fentanyl has her fearing for his life and questioning why it remains so easy to obtain the drugs and yet so hard to get treatment.

Watch the full report tonight

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(CBC)

CBC Ottawa videojournalist Steve Fischer will explore the extensive problems with opioids on Ottawa streets all week. Tonight he looks at the impact addiction can have on one family. Watch on CBC TV starting at 5 p.m.

Mary, who has asked that we not use her real name to protect her son's identity, said she was vigilant in warning her children about the dangers of drugs like marijuana and stronger opiates like heroin.

She said she was unprepared for the potential dangers of prescription drugs and how easy it might be to acquire them.

Now she said she and her family live in constant fear that her son's next breath will be his last.

"Unfortunately now what's available to them is lethal," she said. "I could never have guessed what was coming down the pipe."

Her fears are mirrored in communities across Ontario. Last week the family of South Carleton High School student Tyler Campbell — who died after a fentanyl overdose in 2012 — met with parents to speak out against what they called the "epidemic" of fentanyl addiction.

Joanne Campbell said her son had tried the drug only a "few times" when he died.

“Whenever I hear of another death by overdose my heart breaks all over again,” she said. “Some teens are lucky enough to live, but Tyler didn't.”

Oxycodone and fentanyl leading causes of OD deaths

From 2002 to 2011, an estimated 3,757 deaths in Ontario were linked to opioids, many of them prescription drugs, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner. More recently, from 2009 to 2011, the two most deadly drugs were oxycodone (491 deaths) and fentanyl (253 deaths).

Last year the manufacturer of the oxycodone brand Oxyctonin replaced it with OxyNeo, a new formulation that was harder to abuse since it could not be crushed or injected.

The change was welcome by police and addiction experts, but it also made many addicts seek out other drugs, like fentanyl, a synthetic drug prescribed to manage acute pain that is sold in slow-release patches.

Mary said she had heard of neither drug before they entered her home.

The first incident with was when her son fell down the stairs one morning in May 2012. She said he got back up and sat down and ate, but then, later, began slipping in the bathtub while showering. Her husband ran up quickly and she called 9-1-1 and he was taken to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

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With the discontinuation of Oxycontin, prescription drugs like fentanyl have seen their use rise among drug addicts.

Doctors there told the family her son had overdosed, and she later learned it was from an oxycodone product.

Her son tested positive for the drug again, and moved out to live with a relative before returning home. But his behaviour was strange, she said. One day he shovelled snow off the house in his shorts and then jumped into the snow. Later she learned her son had moved onto fentanyl, a drug experts says is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

More shocking, she said, was to learn from text messages on his phone the source of the drug: a woman and mother who she said "was someone like myself."

"She could be standing behind you at the grocery store buying her groceries," she said.

Mary said she has notified police but they said they cannot act on her word alone.

Police say sale of prescription drugs difficult to stop

Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban with Ottawa police's street crime unit said the illegal prescription drugs pose unique challenges for law enforcement.

Unlike illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin, the illegal sale of prescription drugs does not require a large international distribution network, and can involve as few as two people — the seller and the buyer.

Ottawa police staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban

Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban said curtailing prescription drug abuse poses challenges for law enforcement agencies. (CBC)

Ghadban said police have charged people who were selling their prescriptions, but he said it is difficult.

"If someone's just caught with a few patches and they have a prescription for it, that's not illegal and that makes it difficult for us," said Ghadban.

Pharmacies in Ontario have access to the province's narcotics monitoring system, which allows pharmacists to check that people filling out prescriptions aren't getting them from more than one doctor or more than one pharmacy. But the challenge remains if people with legitimate prescriptions are later turning around and selling them.

Prescription drugs seem safer, says mother

Mary said part of the problem of prescription drugs is how they appear to young people to be safer than illicit drugs.

"I'm quite sure that if somebody had put a syringe of heroin on a table in front of my son and said, 'Here, give that go' he would have said 'Not a chance,' she said. "But a little white pill that came from a mother? 'How scary is that? Okay. I'll try that. Oh, that felt great.'"

Mary said the experience of trying to get treatment for her son has been "a descent into hell," as long waiting lists and treatments she felt ill-suited to young people led to more frustration than results. Unable to stay clean, she said her son moved out again and then was arrested for stealing to support his habit.  He's been released into her custody.

He's still addicted, and she lives in fear that he has been changed forever.

"I am so terrified for his future," she said.

The signs of opioid use

What others observe in users of opioids:

  • Drowsiness or "the nod."
  • Constricted or pinpoint pupils.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Impairment in attention or memory.

Opioid withdrawal signs:

  • Dilated pupils.
  • Anxiety, irritability, anger (drug craving).
  • Agitation (cannot sit still).
  • Appears to be ill: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweats and chills, watery eyes, runny nose.
  • Yawning and Insomnia.

(Source: The Royal)