The Thunder Bay District Health Unit says a medication used to treat depression and help people quit smoking is being abused — with potentially fatal consequences.

An outreach worker with the unit's harm reduction program, Rick Thompson, said drug users in Thunder Bay have been, for years, crushing buproprion pills — commonly known as Wellbutrin or Zyban — and injecting them.

Rick Thompson

Rick Thompson, an outreach worker with Superior Points Harm Reduction program with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, says the practice of crushing Wellbutrin pills and injecting them is growing in popularity. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Users do it to get a high similar to cocaine, and Thompson said the practice is growing in popularity.

But injecting the drug creates serious skin wounds, or abscesses. 

“If left untreated, abscesses could lead to all sorts of complications including going septic as well as eventually death if it gets left alone long enough,” Thompson said.

"We have had lots of our clients over the years that have died from bacterial infections, which started off as infections with an abscess.”

Thompson said the harm reduction team tries to mitigate the danger by warning users about the danger of infection, and encouraging anyone with an abscess to get immediate medical treatment. 

'Enough to cause death'

Ontario's chief coroner's office has documented at least six deaths involving inappropriate use of buproprion, either by inhalation or injection, in the province.

The deputy chief coroner of Investigations for the province of Ontario, Dr. Dan Cass, issued an alert to physicians and pharmacists last spring, urging them to watch out for potential abuse and the consequences.  

“I think what's different in this particular case [compared to other abused drugs] is the degree of tissue damage that happens when the injection happens and the fact that it's been enough to cause death in some of these cases,” he said.

"The chemical itself is very caustic and very damaging to the skin."  

Dr. Dan Cass

Dr. Dan Cass, deputy chief coroner of investigations for the province of Ontario, says injecting Wellbutrin or Zyban causes deep ulcerations in the skin. The chief coroner's office urges physicians and pharmacists to be aware of the potential for abuse when prescribing or dispensing the medication. (Supplied)

Thompson said people with addictions may actually use Wellbutrin more than they would use cocaine. 

He said he's been told the effects of coming down from the high are so rough that people may take more of the drug to make those symptoms go away.

Both Thompson and Cass said they don't think the practice of injecting buproprion is related to Oxycontin coming off the market. Oxycontin is an opiate, which produces a very different effect than the cocaine-like effects of injecting buproprion.