The truth about crystal meth in Winnipeg: 'It's just everywhere'

It's been five days since Travis Veilleux got out of detox — the second time he's been clean in two months.

The first time he got clean it lasted just a few hours.

"It's a critical time in someone's journey. The biggest problem we have right now is that gap between detoxification and treatment … there's probably a two-week to a month wait," said Rick Lees, executive director of Main Street Project, which is home to one of the only two adult detoxification facilities in Winnipeg.

Veilleux's is one of the faces of crystal methamphetamine in this city, but addictions workers are seeing a lot these days. Meth use is up in all demographics, a growth that has been steady for the last two years.

"Because the street value is so attainable, it's starting to reach its tentacles into constituents that typically weren't engaged with us, which would be families living in Kildonan, Tuxedo, Southdale," Lees said.

"There are people sleeping in our shelter who used to live in Tuxedo and drugs took everything from them."

About 60 per cent of clients in the women's detoxification unit report crystal meth as the principal drug that brought them there. In the men's unit, about half of the clients self-report as using crystal meth.

Waiting for treatment

Veilleux may be addicted to meth, but he says his next big score will be a safe place to stay.

"Last night I walked from the Exchange to Osborne Village and back four times. I'm mentally and physically exhausted," said Veilleux. 

The day's first priority is to strip out of soiled clothes. They smell of sweat, urine and sex, he says.

Veilleux is broke, but a friend gave him enough money to buy some clean, second-hand clothes. His belongings are few and fit in a small backpack. The last item of value — his winter jacket — was sold for a piece of meth, or rock as he calls it.

"I tried meth back in 2001 but I was a daily crack smoker back then, so I smoked meth and I thought it was garbage. I didn't know why people smoked it in the first place, so I stuck with my crack up until two years ago. But then I shot it," said Veilleux.

Intravenous drug use also appears to be on the rise in Winnipeg. Last year, Street Connections distributed 1.2 million needles, a number that is up over 400,000 to 500,000 in previous years, according to a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Among intravenous drug users in Winnipeg, crystal meth is the principal drug of choice.

Permanent damage

The first time Veilleux took crystal meth intravenously, he was hooked.

"It's a euphoric feeling, this high. It's like an orgasm times three," he said.

Lees has heard the same explanation from countless clients at Main Street Project.

"If sex gave you pleasure, it gave you double pleasure on crystal meth, but here's the problem: the more you use it, the more it kills those sensors. To get the same level of euphoria you have to do more, but the more you do, the more it kills. What you end up with is a really deadened sense … it does permanent damage."

The initial euphoria of meth wore off for Veilleux about three months after he started using, and he found himself becoming isolated again. His hood is pulled up and his face always down. 

"It's really screwed with the wires of my brain. There's this fear, this anxiety that I have, even when I'm sober, that I've never ever had before. I'm constantly fearing people," said Veilleux.

A compassionate approach

Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician with two decades worth of experience working with addictions and mental illness, much of which has been on the front lines in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, an area known for intravenous drug use.

"It's a terrible drug to be addicted to. First of all, it is difficult to get off and second, it can impose or induce psychosis and paranoia and all sorts of problems and make life completely unlivable," said Dr. Maté.

But rather than the substance being the problem, Dr. Maté argues that addiction is born out of childhood trauma.

In many cases, he says, the source of trauma can go back to when a child was in utero, where the stresses on a pregnant mom predispose a child to mental illness.

"Trauma is not personal. It's nobody's fault, it's multigenerational. But unless we understand it and begin to deal with it in prenatal care, in kindergartens, in families, in schools, I'm afraid we're going to keep passing it on," he said.

A compassionate and holistic approach to addiction starts with getting immediate help for addicts at the moment they are asking for it, says Dr. Maté. It also means understanding that addiction can be any set of behaviours that a person craves, despite their negative consequences.

"There's addictions like shopping, like gambling, like eating, like the internet, like work that are also very damaging to people's lives, but so many of us are engaged in them," he said.

"We're not very proud of ourselves. We want to feel superior to people who are even more addicted than we are, so we choose the opiate and the crystal meth addicts to ostracize, as if they are somehow different than the rest of us. But they're not."

An epidemic on Winnipeg streets

Since leaving the 10-day detoxification program at Main Street Project, Veilleux has slept on couches and in stairwells, and ended up in apartments where crystal meth use is rampant.

"It's an epidemic. It's just crazy how many people are making the switchover from crack to meth. It's just everywhere. Kids to seniors," said Veilleux.

Most treatment centres require a client to be clean for a minimum of three days in order to be admitted. For Veilleux, avoiding the drug will be difficult, but he does have hope.

"Some part of me still knows I'm better than this."

Information Radio's series on crystal meth in Winnipeg begins March 6. Tune in to 89.3 FM in Winnipeg weekday mornings from 6:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., or listen online or via the CBC Radio app.

If you have a story you'd like to share, contact kim.kaschor@cbc.ca