‘It’s a killer drug, man’

Oxy pills fetching $120 as supply tightens, addict says

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on April 12, 2012
Oxycontin pills seized in a drug bust. — Telegram file photo

Matthew MacDonald can always get to Day 3 and just once he made it to Day 4, but days 5, 6 and 7 remain an elusive dream.

MacDonald, 23, is sitting on a shabby brown couch in his Mount Pearl rental describing his attempts to go off OxyContin cold turkey, because he has been waiting months to get into a methadone program. He said he has a referral from his family doctor, got the necessary blood work done and is frantically waiting to be approved.

Eastern Health told The Telegram the current wait time for methadone treatment through the Opioid Treatment Centre in St. John’s is about 18 months.

There are two general practitioners who work with the clinic part time. There are also a couple of private practice physicians who offer methadone services out of their offices. Eastern Health is trying to recruit more doctors to offer the treatment.

OxyContin is the powerful time-release opiate prescription painkiller rampantly popular among addicts who crush or modify the pills to snort or inject the drug.

“One and two are really bad, but you always know in the back of your head it’s not the worst yet. Day 3 to 5 are the worst days. That’s when you get severe anxiety, cold sweats and nausea and throwing up,” MacDonald said.

“Day 4 is where I always caved and went and got one.

“People criticize it and play it down like it’s nothing. It’s the worst pain you’ll go through ever in life, to me. I never went through anything like it. Your whole body sweating and the anxiety. It’s a killer drug, man.”

MacDonald planned to try again this week with do-it-yourself detox by buying from an acquaintance a methadone carry — a dose certain methadone clients in good standing are allowed to take home. His idea is to drink it in small bits each day, chased with sleeping pills to quell the anxiety.

If he can get to Day 7, MacDonald figures he could not only get the Oxy out of his system, but avoid an addiction to the therapy drug methadone.

He may look like he is trying to emulate a tough gangsta rapper with his uniform of patterned T-shirt, track pants and ballcap worn slightly sideways, but MacDonald is articulate and sadly aware of what his life could be.

The weight of OxyContin addiction is bearing down on MacDonald, who should be looking forward to a bright future — he’s in the third and final year of computer studies.

But a week ago, he was fired from his work term, he’s already spent a roommate’s share of the rent and his girlfriend has turned to stripping to feed their addiction.

“I always knew what would happen, that eventually I would  get addicted to it and be in pain,” he said.

“If I try to stop again it will be my sixth time trying to stop.”

A measure meant to tackle addiction is causing even more stress on the streets.

MacDonald said because of OxyNEO, the price of an 80-milligram OxyContin pill has shot up from $80 to $120.

OxyContin is being discontinued by the manufacturer and replaced with OxyNEO, which is supposed to be hard to crush.

Ron Fitzpatrick of the non-profit group Turnings has also heard about the price hike from addicts.

This time last year, an 80-milligram pill was reportedly going for $50, he told The Telegram in an interview. Now the price is up around $120.

“It’s going to drive crime crazy,” Fitzpatrick said, speculating what could happen if the prices keep climbing.

Fitzpatrick said the effects on addicts’ health, as well as on the health care and justice systems, could be even more horrendous once the OxyContin is gone.

“That’s the biggest fear all of us got who work with people on them,” he said.

“In 12 months when there is no more (OxyContin) around, there could be crap from around the world.

“And if organized crime brings heroin in.... that’s the worst of the worst. If they get on that, oh my God ... It’s just going to be devastating.”

Back in MacDonald’s living room, he widens his arms, gesturing to the bruises.

MacDonald always feared needles, but as the price of the drug soared he first got his girlfriend to shoot him up and then gave in altogether.

The idea was to use less Oxy, but then his tolerance went up.

“I’m here putting needles in my arms. It’s almost become second nature now and it’s gross,” he said.

“I wish I was on methadone. It  would solve every problem that I have.

“Money is all right up to her in there. She is (downtown St. John’s) stripping right now to get our fix. I hate it. I hate the fact she is down there doing it. If I was clean I would never ever in a million years let her go down and do that. I hate the fact she is doing it but it needs to be done so we can get the OxyContin. I lost my job. Before it used to be me that was the one buying it.”

MacDonald’s girlfriend declined to participate in the interview, but according to him, she missed an appointment at the methadone clinic and was kicked out of the program. Then she lost her kids.

It was a former girlfriend that got MacDonald taking pills — he said he occasionally used cocaine and weed in high school, but stopped when he started college. The ex-girlfriend was addicted to Percocet, which contains a lesser amount of oxycodone, the drug in OxyContin, as well as acetaminophen. When MacDonald had his wisdom teeth out about a year ago, a friend offered him OxyContin.

MacDonald’s parents, who are in Ontario, have distanced themselves from him because they’ve never been involved in drugs and don’t want his younger siblings exposed to his situation. MacDonald doubts if he gets kicked out of his rental he could go back there, unless he cleans up.

He is due to begin classes again in May, and will have to repeat his workterm — he was fired for not showing up many days. He hopes to get rehired if, once clean, he owns up to his former boss about his drug problem.

But MacDonald is out of cell phone minutes, can’t insure his car, and Oxy fixes are more important than food or anything else. He’s lost 75 pounds.

“If (the DIY detox) doesn’t work this week, I don’t know how I’m going to get off it without methadone,” he said.

“It’s my best shot without relying on getting a call back from the doctor. By the time I get that call, I will probably be dead. I don’t know how I’ll live with myself if I am out on the street and I can’t go back to school and she can’t have her kids and we got nothing. What is there to live for if got nothing and so much pain anyway?”

He was ready to try the DIY detox last week when his girlfriend decided it wouldn’t work and went and bought a pill.

“It tore me because I wanted to stop,” MacDonald said.

“There are so many reasons for me to stop and I feel powerless like not being able to pay rent, not being able to work and not being able to pay for food, my girlfriend not having her kids, for us to have them back. They’re not my kids, but they’re hers and she is beat up without them.”

And even the promise that OxyNEO held for curbing addictions is in question as addicts trade tips on how to beat the supposedly uncrushable pills. MacDonald noted there are already rumours circulating on how to break the pills down and he’s even heard they can be shaved with a wood clamp.

A quick search online resulted in a forum in which participants debated the possibilities of a process that includes microwaving and then freezing the pills.

Fitzpatrick said while every addict is different, methadone is not the magical answer and it’s better to just get off the drugs.

It’s all too easy for clients to get kicked out of the program, he noted.

“When you get on it, it’s like liquid handcuffs,” he said.

And for those who absolutely can’t do it without methadone, Fitzpatrick said the provincial and federal governments should consider allowing nurses to become qualified to administer it so the wait times are lessened. Current federal regulations don’t allow for nurses to prescribe methadone.

 As of 2010, there were about 700 people in the province receiving methadone services, most of them within the Eastern Health region.

bsweet@thetelegram.com