Abuse of prescription drugs on the rise

The “strongest drug on the streets” is rising in popularity among drug users in Centretown and health officials say they are concerned about its danger.

Fentanyl is a prescription skin patch used to treat chronic pain.

Pam Oickle, supervisor of Ottawa Public Health’s harm reduction group, says drug users quarter it, cook it and inject it – and the risk of overdose is extremely high.

“There have been five deaths between summer 2009 and summer 2010 because of it,” Oickle said.

Users have nicknamed the drug “Drop Dead” or “Suicide,” Oickle says. She says the medication is not evenly distributed on the patch so many users are not aware of how much Fentanyl they are injecting.

“Clients have reported it takes about 30 minutes for Fentanyl to kick in, so what ends up happening after about 15 minutes . . . they’re giving themselves another push,” Oickle says.

The Centretown Community Health Centre and the Somerset West Community Health Centre have seen a rise in Fentanyl use within the past year. Both clinics are part of Ottawa’s clean needle program, where dirty needles are disposed of and clean needles are supplied for drug users.

“Clients have told us that the heroine and cocaine that is on the street is really bad right now,” says Oickle. “They don’t want to buy it.”

Cathi Savage, from Somerset West centre, says a Fentanyl patch costs around $20 and $30.

“Where people are getting it from, I have no idea,” adds Alistair Sutherland, director of primary care at the Centretown centre. “It is a controlled substance, a narcotic so it is only available by prescription to those that need powerful pain control.”    

Fentanyl is stronger than morphine or OxyContin, Savage says, adding that there is talk about training drug users to educate fellow users at Somerset West.

“They’re the most trusted. They’re the most respected,” she says. “Their word is thought as more valid than a service provider.”

Savages says training peers would include how to recognize when somebody is close to overdosing.

“Then give steps for prevention like calling 911 and getting the appropriate care,” she says.

Oickle says one of the strategies the harm reduction team is exploring is having drug users trained in CPR.