Nova Scotia

Cape Breton's high rate of drug use has devastating effects

The Nova Scotia government says the eastern health zone, which includes Cape Breton, has the highest rate of deaths from drugs in the province.

Drug users open up about the cost of addiction on health, life and family

David Crowe says he lost everything he ever worked for because of his alcohol and drug use. He is now in an opioid replacement program, but still struggles with addiction. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

This story is part of a series by CBC Cape Breton examining street drug use on the island. To read more stories in this series click here. 

The Ally Centre of Cape Breton says the island has the highest rate of illicit drug use in Atlantic Canada and that has had devastating — and often unseen — effects on people.

The Nova Scotia government says it does not have data to confirm the rate of drug use, but it does say the eastern health zone, which includes Cape Breton, has the highest rate of deaths from drugs in the province.

David Crowe has lost most of his family and his former life — and sacrificed his health — because of his drug use.

The Sydney resident is now in an opioid replacement program, but he still struggles with an inescapable attraction to getting high, and that means sometimes slipping back into the use of illicit and illegal drugs.

Crowe said he's been an addict in one form or another all his life and it started with alcohol.

"I lost everything that I owned," he said. "All my savings, anything I've ever worked for and managed to have that mattered to me.

"I used to own a house. Own. Mortgage free and clear. Owned it. I had a small business, a beautiful wife and two beautiful children. When that all went to hell, that was all about the drinking back then."

Life spiralled down

After a workplace accident, Crowe got hooked on the powerful opioid oxycodone, but he got cut off after testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Crowe said his life just spiralled downward from there.

He met a woman he calls the love of his life and said at first, she stuck with him through opioid withdrawal and his continued use of pills and cocaine.

But eventually she, too, couldn't take it when it became apparent he wasn't going to quit.

"I can't believe she stayed with me as long as she did when I look back, and I lost her," Crowe said.

"I lost a lot of friends. I lost contact with my family. My mother is dying of Parkinson's and dementia. I don't even know what kind of shape she's in. I don't even know if I ever managed to mend that fence and go back there, if she'd even recognize me, you know?"

The Ally Centre of Cape Breton has distributed needle drop boxes throughout the region, saying the island has the highest rate of illicit drug use in Atlantic Canada. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Crowe said he still sometimes uses cocaine, which has put his health at risk. He has a lot of scars on his hands and got a large swollen infection in his neck, all as a result of using needles.

He said there is a disconnect between doing something dangerous and knowing it could hurt or even kill him.

'It's so hard to fight'

"It ceases to be a choice in your mind," Crowe said. "It's like the most intense compulsion and it's so hard to fight, even if you have goals that really matter.

"It's just, there's nothing sane about it. This isn't sane, this behaviour."

Crowe said he is willing to speak out about drug use to help raise awareness and to advocate for people society usually ignores.

At one point, Giulia DiGiorgio was homeless in Toronto and selling crack and heroin to get by. She is now an advocate with the Ally Centre of Cape Breton. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Giulia DiGiorgio, an advocate with the Ally Centre of Cape Breton, said drug use in Cape Breton has led to high rates of hospitalization and death, and made people vulnerable to homelessness and health concerns.

In Nova Scotia, provincial government statistics show that in 2020, there were 96 substance-related fatalities, 50 of which were confirmed or probable opioid-related deaths.

According to a survey by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning are on the rise across the country and there were 2,913 opioid-related deaths in 2019.

A spokesperson for the provincial Department of Health and Wellness said in an email the eastern health zone rate of substance-related deaths is 15.4 per 100,000 population.

According to Statistics Canada, the national rate is 8.4.

'I lost everything'

DiGiorgio knows the kind of help people need because she is a drug user.

She got hooked on alcohol and then heroin as a way to blunt the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

"I lost everything," DiGiorgio said. "Ended up on the streets of Toronto for many years, living under a bridge and squeegeeing and selling crack and heroin."

After going to prison for theft, she began to turn her life around. DiGiorgio still has a prescription for opioid replacement therapy, and she said she is one of the lucky ones who has a doctor to look after her chronic pain and dependency maintenance.

CAPED and the Ally Centre are working to bring an overdose prevention site to Sydney. The sites aim to prevent overdose deaths by offering a safe, supervised place for people to use drugs. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

She has also dealt with the stigma of being a drug user and an ex-convict, and said that can be an insurmountable problem for people who use drugs.

In addition to her work at the Ally Centre, DiGiorgio is chair of the Cape Breton Association of People Empowering Drug Users, also known as CAPED, which is working to amplify the voices of people who use illicit or illegal drugs and to provide a positive message to them.

"The most important thing I try to instill in people is to love themselves, that they're worth it, and that everyone has talent, because we're so highly stigmatized everywhere we go ... so people's self-worth is just beat down to nothing and they internalize the stigma and don't feel the love or get anywhere," she said.

CAPED and the Ally Centre are also working to bring an overdose prevention site to Sydney and they hope it will be one of five sites in the country to offer a safe supply of opioids to select users through a nationally funded pilot project.



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at