Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New world of addiction

Police say painkillers taking over streets and claiming young lives

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Sgt. Ray Hourd has spent the last 20 years watching the troubling trends in drug use, from cocaine and crack cocaine to methamphetamine.

Now he says police are playing catch-up with a new and perhaps more insidious threat.

Prescription drug abuse.

The illegal use of otherwise legal painkillers has been described in recent years as an epidemic in the United States, where it has infiltrated every strata of society, sometimes starting with people given prescriptions for legitimate pain ending up addicted or partying young people simply looking for a high.

Now the street peddling of prescription pills ---- and the pain that comes with it -- has migrated north.

"Like the United States," Hourd cautions of the Winnipeg scene, "it's getting close to that epidemic stage."

He calls it a different world for Winnipeg police "because we don't have a lot of knowledge in this trend."

But the cops' different world is becoming a deadly world for young people.

Plainly stated, painkillers are killing our kids. And in ever increasing numbers. Over the past five years, 83 Manitobans between the ages of 15 and 30 -- 60 of them from Winnipeg -- have died from drug overdoses of an accidental or undetermined nature.

Even more alarmingly, more than half of those deaths -- 43 by the medical examiner's count -- have happened over the last two years.

The statistics, compiled by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at the request of the Free Press, show that the majority of those other-than-suicide drug overdoses involved prescription drugs alone, or opiates in combination with illicit drugs and/or alcohol.

A deeper look at those numbers reveals something else.

Contrary to what many might think, most of the accidental overdose fatalities in Winnipeg -- which also include much fewer deaths by illicit drugs and alcohol -- didn't occur to young people from neighbourhoods most associated with gangs, poverty and drugs.

Instead, they appear to be equally distributed between the city's have and have-not neighbourhoods, although the leading cluster is in the typically middle-income neighbourhoods of East Kildonan, West Kildonan and West St. Paul, which had 14 collectively. By contrast, the North End has had half that many over the same period.

These people are victims, in the case of prescription drugs, of pills that are cheaper to buy on the street than most hard drugs. And, in some cases, they're also victims of a fatal delusion that drugs originally prescribed by doctors must be safe.

But there are other, virtually invisible victims, that are not so easily counted. The chief medical examiner isn't responsible for tracking statistics on near-misses. Nor does the province count the hundreds of Winnipeggers who are either in treatment or desperately seeking treatment for prescription-drug addiction.

Laura Goossen, the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba's director for the Winnipeg region, says there are 335 people in treatment at its methadone clinic. And another 80 are in line for the two-to-three month wait to get in.

The wait list has been halved after the province added nursing staff in the last year.

But Goossen estimates the number in treatment climbs to more than 500 when two private centres are included. Goossen says the majority of those treated are between 25 and 45. And most became hooked on OxyContin, the popularly prescribed painkiller turned common street drug.

Johanna Abbott, the director of the office of the chief medical examiner, concedes the deaths her office has identified are just the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to the prescription-drug problem.

"But at this point," she says, "they're not significantly high enough to say they're definitely a trend."

Hence there is no indication Manitoba will call an inquest into one or more of the deaths, as Ontario has.

"The best I could say," she adds, "is we're watching it."

At street level, though, Sgt. Hourd sees a trend. And he's on a mission to address it. He wants to make the case to his superiors at the Winnipeg Police Service to shift some resources to the prescription-drug front.

Sadly, it's those very numbers of young people dying that just might help him do that.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

 

Current street prices

Cocaine

(powder and crack)

1/4 gram $20 (rock)

1/2 gram $40 (rock)

1 gram $80

1/8 ounce $150-$225

1 kilogram $40,000-$55,000

 

MDMA / ecstasy

1 pill/tab $5-$10

1 gel cap $5-$10

1 gram $40

1 ounce $500

 

Methamphetamine

0.10 gram $10-$30 (point)

1/2 gram $80-$100

1 gram $120-$150

1/8 ounce $400-$600

1 ounce $1,600-$2,500

 

Heroin

0.10 gram $50-$75

1 gram $350

1 ounce $7,500

 

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

Oxycodone

5 mg $5

80 mg $80

Morphine

10 mg (white) $5

100 mg (grey) $30-$40

Valium

1 mg $1

10 mg $2-$3

Tylenol 3

1 pill $0.50

Fentanyl

1 patch $40-$60

Hydromorphone

1 mg $1-$1.25

Restorals/Temazepam

30 mg $5

Methadone

100 ml bottle $50-$60

 

-- source: Winnipeg Police Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2011 A4

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