Prescription painkiller abuse exploding in Hamilton
Admissions to Hamilton opioid withdrawal programs now 2nd highest in Ontario
Hamilton has a prescription drug problem, and it’s getting dramatically worse.
Where crack once reigned as the most dangerous drug in the city, painkiller opiates like oxycodone, fentanyl, percocet and morphine have moved in, creating a crippling and pervasive addiction problem for drug users.
This rapid rise in illegal opioid use has driven doctors, police, pharmacists, the coroner’s office and addictions counsellors to form a special task force to find ways to better work together to combat the growing problem.
All of them are saying the same thing: In the last five years, more and more people are using and abusing prescription painkillers in Hamilton.
It just takes you over. It’s a big wave of bliss. You don’t feel any pain, you don’t think about anything that’s hurting you.- Rebecca, former opioid user
According to statistics obtained by CBC Hamilton from the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Information System, admission rates for local opioid withdrawal programs are now the second highest in the province, behind only northern Ontario.
In 2002, one in ten people who entered a withdrawal management program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare were opioid patients. In 2012, it’s one in four. The number of female opioid withdrawal patients at St. Joe’s is now more than double the provincial average.
As well, opiate deaths now make up over half of all acute drug related deaths in the city, according to the coroner’s office. Years ago, heroin was the most common opioid doctors saw.
Now, it’s prescription pills.
'I would've sold the clothes off my back to get it'
What are opioids?
Opioids are prescription medications that relieve pain. To get high, people can simply take more than prescribed, or break them down to snort, smoke or inject them.
Here are some of the opioids being used in Hamilton now:
- OxyContin: OxyContin is a time-released pain medication developed in 1995 for people who need around-the-clock pain relief. It was taken off the shelves in Ontario, but still exists on the street because of large illegal stockpiles.
- OxyNeo: OxyNeo is the new form of OxyContin that was brought in partially to curb abuse of the original drug. It can still be broken down and used to get high fairly easily. Purdue, the company that makes OxyNeo, maintains the product is harder to abuse.
- Generic OxyCodone: Generic formulations of OxyCodone painkillers also exist on the market.
- Percocet: Percocet is similar to OxyContin, but only lasts for about five hours as opposed to 12 hours. It contains Oxycodone and acetaminophen (the drug in Tylenol), which makes people sick if they take a lot of it.
- Fentanyl: Fentanyl is most commonly available as a skin patch, but can also be seen as a lozenge, pills, shots and a film that dissolves in your mouth. It’s used for extreme pain situations, and often for cancer. In Hamilton, the patches are often chopped up and put inside the mouth, or smoked and injected.
- Morphine: Morphine is a common medium to strong painkiller, often used after surgery.
- Hydromorphone: Hydromorphone or Hydropmorphs are often used in Hamilton, and are more often abused because oxycodone is harder to obtain.
- Methadone: Methadone is usually used to wean people off other drugs, as it works on opioid receptors. It can still be abused for a kind of euphoria.
Rebecca stands on a busy street corner in downtown Hamilton. Within seconds, she has picked out three people she could approach to buy drugs.
“Him, and him, and her,” she says, vaguely gesturing to people passing by. “I can just tell. I can tell by the way they slouch.”
“I know I slouch that way too,” she says, taking a long drag on her cigarette. “You just have to look at them — the way they walk, and the look in their eyes.”
The 23-year-old has been clean for over ten months, now. But before that, she spent years with a needle in her arm, every day, shooting up opiates — usually morphine or hydromorphone. She has asked that her last name not be used.
“I’d steal. I’d manipulate. Anything. I would’ve sold the clothes off my back to get it,” she said. “It just takes you over. It’s a big wave of bliss. You don’t feel any pain, you don’t think about anything that’s hurting you.”
And if you want to get high, then Hamilton was the place for her, she says. She lived in a “depressing, toxic environment,” where prescription opioid abuse was rampant because of opportunity.
“It’s just so easy,” she said. Most of the people she’d buy from had prescriptions for the drugs and were selling their excess supply — or they were able to get prescriptions but never actually needed the drugs.
“You can get it anywhere,” she said. Not just downtown, the North End, or Barton Street. It’s in Westdale and on the Mountain — nowhere is off limits.
Jim has seen the problem sprawl out over Hamilton from an early age. The 23-year-old asked that CBC Hamilton not use his real name.
“I ended up going to a house on the Mountain, and it was really really sad, because the house was strictly used for drugs,” he said. “And you’ve got a 60-year-old mom shooting up her 15-year-old kid. You’ve got a girl contemplating robbing her boyfriend at gunpoint. It’s just stuff that’s so surreal.”
Jim was addicted to oxycodone and heroin for two years, and cocaine and crack for seven years before that, after first trying coke at 13 years old. He’s been off drugs for years.