Digging in dumpsters to find used painkiller patches to chew on, drinking cough syrup and vomiting it into a bowl to pass to a fellow addict, holding up a pharmacy.
These are the desperate measures taken to feed drug addictions -- dangerous and, at times, deadly.
Calgary has seen an alarming spike in drugstore robberies with OxyContin the pill of choice -- another example of extreme steps fuelled by the need for narcotics.
Forty-three pharmacies have been hit so far this year, up from 17 last year and police are now looking for a culprit behind some half-dozen cases citywide over the last two weeks.
"It's either a crime of opportunity or a crime of need," police spokesman Kevin Brookwell says.
"Thank goodness, up until this point, no one has been hurt."
But on many fronts, the potential for injury is there.
OxyContin is designed as a painkiller, not to be crushed, snorted, smoked or injected.
Over time, addicts build up a tolerance, consuming more and more of the drug, ultimately trapped by an addiction that can demand more than a half-dozen pills a day.
On Calgary streets, the drug can run as high as $80 per pill but more typically go for $5 to $10.
The consequences can be deadly: A 15-year-old St. Albert boy died after an OxyContin overdose earlier this year, his alleged traffickers charged for peddling him the pill.
"The people misusing it are sick and need help and treatment," says RCMP Staff Sgt. Ian Sanderson, northwest region co-ordinator for drugs and organized crime awareness service.
"It's a very, very tough drug to beat."
While an OxyContin hit takes abusers to a "warm, fuzzy, happy place," things turn ugly when the body screams for its next fix.
"Then you have a serious problem," Sanderson says.
"Not only is it a physical addiction, but also a psychological addiction.
"Those coming down or in withdrawal are not happy people and are motivated to get it."
And drugstore robberies show just how far some will go to get it.
While many are done by would-be traffickers, some are the work of frantic addicts.
The holdups always pose a potential threat, says Calgary RCMP Sgt. Donna Hanson.
"When people are desperate, anything can happen. If it's getting to the point of robbery, they are at the end of their rope," she says.
"We are certainly seeing more incidents of prescription drug-based robberies right across Alberta -- definitely a major concern is for the innocent bystander or someone who works in the pharmacy."
There are other crimes linked to the illegal demand for OxyContin from frauds, including double-doctoring and identity theft to get the drugs.
The Coalition on Prescription Drug Misuse in this province has police, pharmacists and health-care workers looking at the issue, but the link between OxyContin and crime is a national issue.
Health Canada figures show seizures of prescription sedatives and stimulants, such as Ritalin, remaining fairly consistent in recent years while painkillers such as oxycodone, the active ingredient in brands like OxyContin, have about tripled since 2000.
Across North America, demand by the illegal market is huge. Last year in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, there were nearly twice as many pharmacy robberies as bank robberies, with OxyContin the main target.
Earlier this year, the lure of Oxycontin led to an addict getting nearly nine years in prison for eight terrifying drugstore holdups here , including one where he plunged a knife into the counter while screaming demands.
In September, a man was charged with nine counts of OxyContin-related drugstore robberies over several weeks.
Bracing for a holdup, many pharmacies have installed surveillance cameras, posted notes saying there is a limited OxyContin supply on site or requiring legitimate users to place an order in advance.
The northeast Blue Bottle Pharmacy was hit last March with staff and customers, including seniors, terrorized at gunpoint by rampaging thugs demanding drugs and cash.
"Since that incident, we ended up building a vestibule at the front door which is permanently locked," says manager Phil Moore.
"No one comes in unless I buzz them in ... and if they're looking suspicious, they aren't coming in.
Each robbery poses potential peril.
A downtown drugstore robbery in 2004 turned deadly when a police officer was forced to open fire on a knife-wielding man on drugs and looking for more, holding a pharmacist hostage, a case underscoring the deadly danger inherent to such robberies.
-- with files from Doug McIntyre
PAINKILLER CAUSING CRIME PAINS
About OxyContin, also known as 'Hillbilly Heroin':
OxyContin is the brand name for the time-release painkiller oxycodone.
When used as prescribed, OxyContin, which contains the synthetic opiate oxycodone, is a painkiller.
In an abuser's body, the highly addictive drug leads to mild euphoria and relaxation, as opposed to an intense high.
It has a time-release coating so when used as directed, OxyContin delivers pain relief over time.
Addicts crush and then snort, smoke or inject a pill of OxyContin -- this increases the pill's power, which can reach deadly levels.
The regulated narcotic leaves a range of effects from nausea to hot and cold sweats, vomiting, fatigue and other flu-like symptoms and is highly addictive.
Alberta Health Services says 15% of people seeking treatment for drug use have issues with opiates, including OxyContin and heroin, compared with 33% with liquor, 30% with tobacco and 49% with cocaine.
Prices on the street:
Codeine 5 mg: $10/pill
Tylenol with Codeine 500 mg: $1-2/pill
Oxycodone tablets (which come in different brand names including OxyContin, Percocet) $20 to $80; price varies according to market demand
Valium: $1-$5/pill depending on dosage
Marijuana: $10/gram, which makes about three joints
Cocaine: $80 to 100/gram
Ecstasy: $10 to $20/pill
-- Source: RCMP and Calgary Police Service
By NADIA MOHARIB
October 25, 2009
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