Recovering addicts feel like 2nd-class citizens in some pharmacies

An Ottawa man struggling with an opiate addiction says his pharmacist denied him access to his prescription to Suboxone, a drug that blocks opiate receptors in the brain and prevents withdrawal.

Addiction specialists worry the stigma will discourage addicts from getting treatment

Do pharmacies treat addiction fairly?

8 years ago
Some recovering addicts say they feel like second-class citizens when they go to get prescriptions to battle their addictions. 3:41

Like many addicts, Ammario Reza became hooked on opiates as a result of a doctor’s prescription. Four years ago the Carleton student, now 26, was prescribed oxycontin for a kidney stone and a crushed molar.

“I wouldn't say I got addicted to it right away, it was more of a gradual thing, I thought it was a miracle drug at the time because it was great and it took the pain away, but then after a time I started to realize that I couldn’t really function or start my day without having it in my system,” said Reza.

Reza said that in time, fear of experiencing the painful symptoms of opiate withdrawal came to dominate his life. It took him four years to seek treatment, and when he did, he was prescribed Suboxone.

Suboxone is a relatively new drug that is taken in pill form, unlike methadone. It works by blocking opiate receptors in the brain, preventing withdrawal.

For three weeks, Reza said things went well and he was receiving his Suboxone at a pharmacy in Hintonburg.

Then one day the pharmacist called him aside.

“She handed me the prescription and she said, you know I didn’t realize what this drug is. But I looked it up, and now I know I don’t want to stock it here.  I asked her 'come again', and she said that she didn't want to stock the medication because it's methadone. To which I said it’s not methadone. And frankly, even if it was, so you would turn someone away who’s trying to recover from an opium addiction?”

Reza ended up filling his prescription at another pharmacy, but he has to take two buses to get there.

The pharmacist who told Reza she wasn’t comfortable dispensing the drug told CBC she had been confused because of erroneous information on the website of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, that led her to believe she lacked training to dispense it.

Lack of training a "red herring"

Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla said he has seen many addicts treated differently from other customers at pharmacies in Ottawa. (CBC)
Addiction specialist Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla runs the Recovery Ottawa clinic in Vanier. He said he prescribes the drug frequently, and the issue of pharmacists lacking training is a red herring.

“The only difficulty for the pharmacist in effect, is to take the time to talk to the patient, to watch him put it under his tongue, and then speak to him afterwards to make sure it’s dissolved.  And that's all they have to do, there's nothing more than that. And I don't understand why that would be a problem,” said Ujjainwalla.

Dr. Ujjainwalla said he’s heard many stories of patients being treated poorly when presenting prescriptions.

“Either they're not knowledgeable about what addiction is, or they have a preconceived idea of what this person is going to be like, and they're not working with physicians, and they're not moving forward into a new product that's going to revolutionize addiction,” he said.

New pharmacy geared to addicts

Next door to Dr. Ujjainwalla’s clinic is the Respect RX Pharmasave, set up by a group of four Ottawa pharmacists who wanted to change the way addicts are treated.

“Unfortunately a lot of stores and a lot of clinics that deal with addiction treat them as second-class citizens. You have to come in through a side door. Or you have to just come up the middle aisle, and get your prescription and get out, you’re not allowed to shop in the store,” said head pharmacist Don Johnstone.

“Other people have told us about situations where they'll walk into a pharmacy, and two people that are normal patients, the diabetic or the girl picking up her birth control, will come in behind them, and yet the pharmacy serves those patients first and makes the Suboxone patient wait,” he said.

Don Johnstone is the head pharmacist at Respect RX Pharmasave, a pharmacy devoted to helping recovering addicts. (CBC)
A few blocks away from Johnstone’s pharmacy is a Jean Coutu on Montreal Road where recovering addicts have to enter through a metal door at the back of the store. Sam Felton used to use that pharmacy, before she discovered Johnstone’s.

“They’ve kicked me out for no reason and told me I have to come back through the side back entrance, which looks like a jail cell, and wait till they're done doing everyone else, before they get to you,” said Felton.

“I spend tons of money there”, said Felton.” I live right down the road and I buy all my beauty supplies and I'm just trying to go through my day, and they're trying to make things harder for me when I haven't done anything wrong.”

Addiction specialists said the greatest danger is that the stigma recovering addicts feel will discourage them or make them stay away.

Ammario Reza said his experience with Suboxone has been very positive, allowing him to get over an addiction he once thought he would never be free of.

But the poor treatment he received left him with a sour taste.

“You’re a patient. Whether you call it a disease, or a disorder, it’s a medical issue. It’s like I’m expected to feel ashamed of the fact that I'm on this medication, and that I had an opiate problem. It makes you feel like a piece of crap, it really does. It makes you feel like you’re not worth what every other patient deserves, which is compassion and equality between patients,” said Reza.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at