Pubdate: Fri, 01 Dec 2006
Source: Niagara This Week (CN ON)
Copyright: 2006 Metroland Printing, Publishing and Distributing
Author: Paul Forsyth


Legal Narcotics Replacing Heroin On The Streets Of Niagara As Drug Of

The stereotype of the haggard heroin junkie jonseing for a fix is
fading away in Niagara, with prescription narcotics becoming a new
street drug of choice.

Niagara is mirroring a trend in most major cities across Canada, in
which prescription drugs such as potent painkillers OxyContin,
Percodan and Demerol are bypassing heroin use among people with
substance abuse problems.

The shift away from heroin, which has been sinking its addictive hooks
into people worldwide since it was introduced in 1898, poses real
problems for policing agencies and public health officials on the
front lines of the ever-present war against drugs.

Part of that is because heroin is derived from opium poppies grown
overseas in countries such as Afghanistan, meaning heroin distributors
- -- mainly organized crime -- must laboriously transport it through
multiple jurisdictions, risking seizures and prosecution.

Prescription opiate narcotics, however, come directly from local
pharmacies, legally distributing them in most cases.

Staff Sgt. George Ravenek, head of the Niagara Regional Police
intelligence services which includes drug investigations, said it's
much more difficult to prove someone has obtained prescription drugs
illegally than it is to pursue charges in cases involving heroin.

"There's no offence for me to have 10 of these (prescription) pills in
my pocket," he said. "It's perfectly legal for me to have them in my

"If you have a bag of heroin, you're going to jail."

Likewise, a search warrant of a home leading to a find of heroin will
likely lead to charges. A search warrant leading to bottles of
prescription pills with labels scratched off -- meaning they could
have been stolen, or obtained from dealers or friends -- is less
likely to result in charges.

In a new study released last week, researchers looked at drug trends
in seven major Canadian cities. While heroin remains the drug of
choice in Vancouver and Montreal -- in large part, it's believed,
because they're port cities where heroin shipments arrive -- getting
high in Toronto, Edmonton, Quebec City, Fredericton and Saint John now
more often than not means taking prescription painkillers.

The researchers found that even the use of crack cocaine, still common
in the cities, is on the wane in favour of the prescription drugs.

The researchers concluded "heroin use has become an increasingly
marginal form of drug use among illicit opioid users in Canada."

Norma Medulun, director of the Niagara Health System's addictions
services program, said local methadone maintenance programs --
originally designed to get heroin addicts off the street and into a
more stable lifestyle -- are seeing a growing number of people hooked
on prescription opiates coming in to stave off the agonizing
withdrawal from the drugs.

"The withdrawal is severe," said Medulun. "We're seeing a growing
number of people who simply can't stop using their prescription opioids.

A reduction in the use of heroin brings with it a reduction in some of
the risks associated with the drug. The researchers said among the
drug users involved in the study, a sizeable percentage of them have
slashed their use of drug injections, reducing the risk of hepatitis C
and AIDS from sharing tainted needes.

But powerful prescription opiate painkillers are by no means risk
free: if abused, they have potentially serious side effects, including
respiratory and cardiac arrest, organ damage and death, said Medulun.

Getting hooks on potent prescription painkillers carries with it much
of the destruction heroin brings with it.

The powerful high the drugs produce can quickly ensnare someone. Users
build up a tolerance over time and must continually increase their
dosage, said Ravenek.

Although prescription painkillers are cheaper to obtain than heroin,
eventually many users are unable to hold a job and find themselves
hard up for money.

Fuelled by their overwhelming desire to get their fix, users often
turn to crime for the money they need, said Ravenek.

Compounding efforts to fight the increase in prescription painkiller
addictions is the trend in Niagara and Ontario of more walk-in clinics
in the face of a chronic shortage of family doctors.

Ravenek said this leads to "double doctoring," in which people hooked
on the drugs walk into one clinic, get a prescription, then go to
other clinic and get more -- either for personal use or to sell on the

"That definitely contributes to the problem," Ravenek said. "It's wide
open for abuse."

The Canadian researchers who examined drug trends in the seven cities
said Canada is already the highest per-capita consumer of opiate
painkillers in the world, and the country has lax control measures on
the drugs.

Although the researchers said that needs to be addressed given the
growth in opiate abuse, they cautioned that any steps must not
undermine legitimate access to pain medications.

Whatever steps are taken, the trend to opiate pain medications
replacing heroin isn't going away any time soon, said Ravenek.

"Definitely, that's the trend here in Niagara. It's a lot easier to
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MAP posted-by: Derek