Northern communities are warning they lack the mental health and addictions services to cope with the delisting of the prescription narcotic painkiller Oxycontin — a drug that in some remote First Nations has addicted over 50 per cent of the population.
The drug’s manufacturer Purdue Pharma announced on Feb.29 that the current tablet form of the drug — crushed into powder and snorted or mixed with water and injected intravenously by addicts to produce a heroin-like high — has been replaced by a new, more tamper-proof formulation called OxyNEO.
“If you try to crush this tablet up it turns into this wet pulpy mess,” said local pharmacist and Dryden Prescription Narcotics Abuse Task Force member Robert Button. “It’s just one very small part of the answer to a drug that, right now, is very easily manipulated and abused. The drug itself is still going be available, it’s just maybe not going to be as popular.”
Button says OxyNEO is designed to deliver its dose slowly over 12 hours and will prevent withdrawal symptoms if a pill is taken orally.
But that might be cold comfort to an estimated 9,000 opiate addicts in Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) remote communities where a single tablet of illicit Oxycontin can draw a street value of up to $400 and is commonly sold in fractions.
Sioux Lookout’s Meno Ya Win Health Centre issued a statement last week outlining its plans to build an outpatient withdrawal management unit to work in concert with a recently opened five-bed medical withdrawal support service unit which opened, Dec. 5. Since the beginning of February, Meno Ya Win has been hosting meetings focusing on streamlining addictions service delivery in their zone.
Button says he believes the drug of choice will simply move to something else.
“The problem is so widespread and so complex,” said Button. “My feeling is that if you remove this drug, or make this one difficult, then people who have a tendency towards addiction will move onto another drug. These problems have been around for thousands of years and they’re not going to go away on a reformulation, we know that.”
Just what will fill the vacuum left by Oxycontin, is a legitimate policing concern says Dryden Police Chief Rob Davis.
“We’re not so naive to believe the problem is gone,” said Davis. “The question is, ‘what will be the next trend?’ There’s no clear indicator what the replacement drug will be.”
Davis says Oxycontin’s direct relationship to organized crime, violent crime, break and enter, theft and prescription fraud has been epidemic across Ontario, particularly in the past five years. While he applauds the drug manufacturer’s actions, he says police agencies are bracing themselves in the short-term for a spike in Oxy-related crime.
“From the policing side it’s a relief because, long-term, we should see the Oxy-related crimes go down, but now that the word is out that Oxycontin is going to be delisted, we expect to see a spike of people trying to grab as much as they can before it’s gone,” said Davis. “I’ve instructed our staff to beef up our presence around the pharmacies. Talking to my colleagues in other police services, there’s the concern that some of the organized groups may try and target pharmacies and the distributors who deliver it. We expect those who use Oxy legitimately could become targets. We’re ramping up our efforts to try and prevent and respond to it as it happens.”
Davis says the drug’s legitimate origins have had significant negative consequences on community health care services as addicts frequently flood emergency rooms and doctors offices in search of a new prescriptions.
“I’ve worked several jurisdictions since Oxy has been around and it’s frustrating because you see the addicts plugging up the emergency rooms and doctors’ offices trying to replace prescriptions, while other people are waiting in line to get legitimate treatment,” said Davis. “From that side I’m hoping that this change can clean up the health care side of the problem.”
Davis reminds the public that if they are in possession of unused or expired Oxycontin, to return it to the pharmacy where it can be properly disposed of.