Opioid addiction: 'It's an every class problem'

·4 min read

“I came this close to being dead,” said Sean Pauley, of Riverview, a recovering addict who this week marks his fourth year of no longer using opiates.

Pauley says he was prescribed Percocet, a brand name painkiller than combines oxycodone and acetaminophen, following a foot injury in his thirties. What followed, he said, was 14 years of dependency.

At one point, he was taking 60 pills in a day, Pauley said, noting his addiction cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and damaged relationships.

New public opinion data suggests most Canadians see the nation's opioid use epidemic as a serious problem or crisis, but don't recognize the scope of the problem.

“It’s an every class problem,” said Pauley, who now facilitates a recovery group through the Moncton chapter of LifeRing, and an every age problem.

While some people associate the problem as one faced by people living on the streets, he has a house, is married, has a family and a job, Pauley said. He was in detox with a doctor, a farmer and a pilot. He said he knows of people as young as 15 who were prescribed opioids to treat injuries, and seniors who became dependent following surgery.

Some move from prescription pills, to drugs acquired on the street that can take different forms, he said.

Pauley said he didn’t drink or smoke pot prior to becoming addicted to opioids, but it wasn’t long before he became dependent on them. Despite everything he had, when he was on withdrawal all he thought about was the pills, he said.

In New Brunswick, 74 per cent of respondents to a recent Angus Reid survey said addiction, overdose and death related to opioid use is a serious problem or crisis in Canada. When asked the same question, but as it applies only to their own province, 57 per cent of New Brunswickers thought it was a serious problem or crisis. When the question was applied to individual communities, that number dropped to 39 per cent.

Debby Warren, executive director of social agency Ensemble, says it's a phenomenon where people are aware of the problem but don’t believe it’s happening right in their own backyard.

But it is, Warren said.

Moncton-based Ensemble serves people from Metro Moncton, Cap-Pelé, Albert Mines, Salisbury and other communities. Warren can still recall a day someone brought garbage bags of needles from the Salisbury-Petitcodiac area. They recognized a need in the Sackville area that led to the Sackville United Church installing a vending machine to supply users with clean needles and supplies.

Among survey respondents, 14 per cent of New Brunswickers said they have a close friend or family member who has “become dependent or addicted to opiates,” a statistic which puts the province in a three-way tie for the highest rate in the country. Ten per cent of New Brunswick respondents said they have had a close friend or family member who has died as a result of using opiates, the second highest rate in the country.

New Brunswick has the second highest rate in Canada of people who inject substances, said Warren, noting while the issue may not always be visible, it is happening. “Changing the mindset of the public is one of hardest things [about tackling the problem],” she said.

The survey also showed 89 per cent of New Brunswick respondents believe there should be compulsory drug treatment programs, while 45 per cent believe we should “get tougher on people who use drugs,” ideas Warren and Pauley both believe won’t work.

And New Brunswick, at 49 per cent, is one of only two provinces (the other being Saskatchewan) where a majority do not believe illegal drugs should be decriminalized. The national average is 59 per cent and in Nova Scotia, the rate is as high as 60 per cent in favour of decriminalization.

Warren said the issue won’t go away by arresting people. Decriminalization helps everyone from the individual who now does not have to resort to stealing or selling their bodies to buy drugs, to the health-care system which will not be burdened with treating costly complications from non-pharmaceutical grade drug use, she said.

Giving Warren some hope that tides could be shifting is that 62 per cent of New Brunswickers said they now favour supervised safe-injection sites, a figure she thought might be lower.

“This is a very complex disease,” said Warren of drug addiction, but noted it's clear from this polling research that more education is needed to tackle the issue. Shifting public opinion also gives politicians the will to tackle issues, she said.

The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from Nov. 12 to 16 among a representative randomized sample of 5,003 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum, and a second online survey from Jan. 7 to 11, among a sample of 1,601. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of 5,003 would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.4 percentage points, and +/- 2.5 for a sample of 1,601, 19 times out of 20.

Clara Pasieka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal