Out in the Open

Harm reduction worker by day, fentanyl user at night: One man's story of recreational opioid use

We spoke to one person who says he'd been able to use fentanyl recreationally for over a decade.
Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo. (The Canadian Press)
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Fentanyl abuse in Canada has reached critical proportions.

Fentanyl overdoses led to a public health emergency declaration in B.C.; and nationally, the number of fentanyl-related deaths have increased by as much as 20 times in the past five years. The opioid, which is over 80 times more powerful than morphine, is tearing through people's lives in ways they never expected.

CBC's Out in the Open talked with Raffi Balian, who used fentanyl recreationally for over a decade. The 60-year-old doesn't identify as an addict. He helps run a harm-reduction program called COUNTERfit in Toronto.

Raffi told host Piya Chattopadhyay that it was his work that got him into hard drugs in the first place.

We can't talk about drugs openly, we can't educate each other openly.- Raffi Balian

"Being exposed to misery, overdose, HIV, hep C—all kinds of problems that people are facing. After a while, you start developing more solidarity for the people you're working for, than the people you're working with. And you start to identify more with them," Raffi said.

Raffi told Piya that he has put himself through withdrawal as a way to maintain control over his use, and he's always careful to control his doses. In his eyes, much of the danger of drug use comes from the lack of information about controlled substances.

"We can't talk about drugs openly, we can't educate each other openly... we have to hide it, we have to use it alone. Using alone is one of the biggest reasons people overdose," he said.

In spite of the fact that opiate use has caused problems in Raffi's personal life, he stands by his decision to continue using the drug. However, he is very careful to stress that he shouldn't be an example for others, and doesn't condone recreational use of fentanyl.

"You have to know everything about drugs before you use them. And if you can avoid using them, why use them?"