Stairway to heaven

Published May 1, 2011

The face of addiction is changing, and our understanding of drug abuse must change with it.

Parents need to know that substance abuse could be happening right under their own roof-and they could unwittingly be providing the drugs. A leftover bottle of Tylenol No. 3 sitting in a medicine cabinet could be fodder for a practice called “pharming.” This refers to dumping pills into a bowl at a party and then taking them by the handful. Even seemingly innocuous drugs such as cough medication can be used for “robo-tripping,” which involves downing bottles of Robitussin DM for the psychoactive effects of its cough suppresant, dextromethorphan.

According to a 2009 survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto,  prescription opioids-narcotic pain relievers such as morphine (Avinza, Roxanol), hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and oxycodone (OxyContin)-now rank third in popularity, behind alcohol and marijuana, as recreational substances used by Ontario high school students. In a report released in Sept. 2010, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons called for widespread change, both in the prescribing practices of doctors and the ability of police to prosecute those who abuse prescription medication.

In addition to opiates, stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are popular with students needing to pull an “all-nighter” and executives needing that little “something” to outperform peers. Tranquilizers, such as benzodiazepines and the veterinary anesthetic and painkiller ketamine (Ketalar) are also popular. And unlike many stolen goods, prescription drugs actually increase in value when sold on the street, an incentive for anyone needing fast cash.

Andrew Fehr was raised by two loving parents. He grew up going to church, youth programs and Sunday school. His mother was diagnosed and treated for a brain tumour when he was young. “I don’t exactly know why I started taking my mom’s medication,” says Fehr. “I just took stuff randomly, but it got me high and I thought it was awesome. I didn’t really understand what I was doing and had no idea it was addictive.”

Ernie Tell is a 50-something father of two and former drug addict. In addition to crack and cocaine, he abused prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety medications such as oxycodone, hydromorphone, diazepam (Valium) and clonazepam (Klonopin).  

Michael Beaubien is in his late 20s. He has been addicted to prescription painkillers for 10 years. Although he spent a year in a methadone maintenance program, the approach wasn’t effective. “It was a way to get opiates every day and not be sick,” says Beaubien. “And because I didn’t have to pay as much for my opiates,” he adds, “I had money to buy cocaine.”

Andrew Fehr began using at the age of 12. Now 21, Andrew is clean again and attending seminary. “When you’re taking something that a doctor gives someone, you think it’s safe. With Oxycontin or any prescription drug, you can look at it and know it’s clean and safe, and it gets you high, and it’s something you can get off the street. It’s so easy to justify.”

When prescription drugs are taken in combination with other drugs, or mixed with alcohol, the impact escalates rapidly. Mike Hayward, a married father, was addicted to benzodiazepines clonazepam, diazepam and lorazepam (Ativan). He was prescribed these drugs by his doctor and when he combined them with the powerful narcotic painkiller oxycodene, the impact was stupefying.

Nobody wakes up thinking, “I’m going to become a drug addict today.” But prescription narcotics are powerful and the descent into addiction rapid. Climbing out of addiction and staying out lasts a lifetime. Addicts wanting help are looking for an authentic community-a place to belong, a safe place to ask questions, share struggles and find meaningful accountability. We can all help. Ω

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a freelance writer in London, Ont.


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