Recreational use of painkiller OxyContin jumps in Eastern Ontario, even as it levels off in rest of province
One in five Eastern Ontario high-school students has taken highly addictive painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet and Demerol. And the recreational use of OxyContin among this region's teens is rising sharply, even as it levels off in other parts of the province.
Only alcohol and marijuana are more popular, according to the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, the country's longest ongoing study of teen habits.
Among Eastern Ontario's 308,000 students between grades 7 and 12, nearly 65,000, or 21 per cent, admit-ted having taken a prescription painkiller at least once in 2009, the last time the survey was conducted.
Since 2005, when the survey began tracking OxyContin use in particular, the rate of Eastern Ontario students who reported taking the drug has jumped nearly threefold, from 0.6 to 1.6 per cent. That translates to more than 4,900 young people in a region stretching from Algonquin Park to the Quebec border.
"It was a big surprise for us to see how common these drugs are," said Robert Mann, a senior scientist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and one of the survey's authors.
The survey confirms what police and public health officials already know is an epidemic that has pushed up rates of overdose deaths and drugstore robberies.
Addiction treatment experts consider the survey results a conservative estimate since the poll only tracks students who attend school, not those who have dropped out or been expelled.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Glenn Barnes, chief executive of the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre, Eastern Ontario's residential drug treatment facility for teens.
"You're missing all of those troubled kids who get kicked out (of school). My hunch is they're the ones who would be into more drugs than all of the kids in school combined."
While heavy drug use among teens has generally declined over the past two decades, Eastern Ontario is the only region to have bucked the provincial trend, driven by OxyContin's popularity.
The brand-name drug is a potent painkiller containing the opioid oxycodone, which delivers an initial rush of euphoria, much like heroin. Doctors prescribe oxycodone to help patients recovering from surgery, back injury or chronic pain, but the drug can also be highly addictive.
The growing popularity of Oxy-Contin as a recreational drug, particularly in rural communities, is an unintended consequence of a dramatic rise in prescriptions nationwide for oxycodone.
Compared to a decade ago, Canadians now use more prescription opioids per capita than any country but the United States and Belgium.
Police say the black market demand for OxyContin has taken off in recent years, as have thefts of prescription painkillers, turning pharmacies into targets for OxyContin robbers.
Within Eastern Ontario, Cornwall has become an epicentre of Oxy-Contin abuse, fuelling a sharp rise in petty crime. In the past 18 months, nine adults and teens have died from OxyContin-related overdoses. The area's public health unit, working with police, has formed a task force to tackle the problem.
"You can see why we're worried about it because it's something that people get hooked on very easily," said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, the chief of public health for the rural counties surrounding Cornwall. "And because of the addiction and withdrawal, they'll go to any lengths -prostitution, crime -to feed their habit."
Unlike other street drugs, Oxy-Contin is relatively easy for teens to get, particularly if their parents or grandparents have prescriptions for it, said Roumeliotis.
And when teens become addicted to OxyContin, they are far less likely than addicts of alcohol or other types of drugs to seek help.
In his previous job as director of the Cornwall area's youth addictions treatment program, Barnes noticed "a frightening number" of teens who showed up in hospital emergency rooms after overdosing on OxyContin.
"Before these kids died, they were not looking for treatment," said Barnes.
Provincewide, more than 180,200 students between grades 7 and 12, or 18 per cent of all teens, have taken an opioid-based painkiller at least once without a doctor's prescription. Of that group, 16,700, or two per cent, have taken OxyContin.
More than half of OxyContin users reported having taken the drug once or twice a year; another 15 per cent admitted using the drug more than 10 times.
Among Ontario's regions, the highest rate of OxyContin use continues to be in the north (3.2 per cent), followed by the west (1.7). Since 2005, Toronto's rate has jumped from 0.8 to 1.3 per cent with no reliable data for 2009.
Feb. 27, 2011