First Nation joins fight against pill abuse

Zoey Duncan

Naicatchewenin has taken a major step to curb a dangerous “epidemic” that is moving through their small community.
By instituting a staff drug-testing policy at the band office, the chief and council hope to both set a positive example for prescription drug abusers and keep the addiction from affecting administrative operations.
“Once you get that within our band staff, then we’ve lost it,” Chief Wayne Smith stressed. “Next thing you know, nobody can help anybody because everybody’s affected.
“What we wanted to do was make everybody aware, educate, and do some prevention work and if the help is there, we would give them the opportunity to get the help if that’s what they wanted,” he added.
Workers who refuse to be tested will be suspended without pay for two weeks. If they continue to refuse during those two weeks, the employee will be terminated.
“It’s a growing epidemic, it’s running rampant in our community,” Chief Smith warned.
Chief Smith was the first to be tested with a saliva swab at the opening ceremonies for the drug-testing policy a week ago Monday (June 27). Other staff members volunteered to be tested in private later that day.
Random testing, where candidates are chosen by a computer, will be continuous.
Chief Smith tested negative for each drug or drug family being tested: opiates, methamphetamines, cocaine, cannabis/THC, amphetamines, and oxycodone.
“A lot of our cases under child welfare, under health programs, were all pill-related issues, as the results were coming in,” he noted.
“So that’s actually what prompted us to start looking at the issue seriously.”
The cost of the drug testing will be picked up entirely by the band. Chief Smith said it’s an expensive initiative, but he expects it will be worth the investment.
“I’m not going to sit back and wait for Health Canada [Aboriginal Affairs] to respond to the social
issues we have here,” he remarked. “We went ahead and did it the best way we knew how.”
The misuse of drugs has had—and continues to have—a “devastating impact on the lives of the people on the Naicatchewenin First Nation,” according to the new staff drug-testing policy.
It was developed with plenty of community consultation in order to best meet the needs of the 300 or so members of Naicatchewenin First Nation.
Chief and council also consulted extensively with Rainy River First Nations, which instituted its own policy last September.
Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba was the first community to institute a staff drug-testing policy several years ago.
“Healthy staff, healthy community, that’s the theme of the drug policy,” said Chief Smith.
“We’re not out to get anyone,” he stressed. “But if we do encounter an individual that has a problem with pills or drugs, that individual will be given an opportunity, [and] if he or she wants it, will get help.”
Chief Smith cited Tylenol 3 as a frequently-abused drug, but called out pain reliever oxycodone and its slow-release, brand-name cousin, OxyContin, as a particular problem at Naicatchewenin. But the problem is not unique to their community.
“I think it’s fast becoming the biggest drug problem in your area,” said Det. Sgt. Randy Belluz with the OPP in Thunder Bay.
“And not just your area but all over the northwest region,” he remarked.
When it comes to seizing illegal drugs, Det. Sgt. Belluz said oxycodone has replaced cocaine as an apparent drug of choice.
When OxyContin is crushed or chewed and inhaled, injected, or swallowed, the time-release chemicals are broken down and it has euphoric effects comparable to heroin, also from the opiate family.
Health Canada notes OxyContin often is referred to as “Hillbilly Heroin,” and is highly-addictive.
But unlike heroin or cocaine, the small, round, manufactured OxyContin tablets are likely to seem a safer drug of choice, especially for those who are new to recreational drug use, because it doesn’t have a reputation of a drug such as heroin, Det. Sgt. Belluz said.
“These pills are much easier to access,” he noted. “You’ve got all kinds of people out there that are prescribed the pills and they’re for free—they’re paid by our medical plans.
“With cocaine, there was always a huge risk at being caught,” Det. Sgt. Belluz explained. “If you were caught with any amount of cocaine, it couldn’t possibly be legal.
“But if you’ve got a prescription in your pocket for 100 oxycodone and we catch you with it, whether you’re trafficking or not, we have a real job ahead of us in investigation to show us you have them for the purpose of trafficking.”
“It’s become a drug of abuse and most of the time unintentionally,” echoed Hugh Dennis, the drug-testing co-ordinator for Naicatchewenin.
“People don’t want to become addicts,” he reasoned. “They experiment with something to feel good and then it suddenly turns into their personal hell.”
Dennis said OxyContin addiction sometimes results from patients who are legitimately prescribed the painkiller, but who become hooked, while other addictions stem from intentional misuse of the drug to begin with.
Locally, the community drug action officer here has been intercepting traffickers coming in from Manitoba and targeting the surrounding First Nations’ communities, Det. Sgt. Belluz said.
Those traffickers are selling 80 mg OxyContin for between $100-$120 per pill.
But there also are traffickers smuggling OxyContin to fly-in communities where they’ll sell that same 80 mg pill for more than $400, or cut it into quarters to sell each 20 mg piece for $120.
The pills often are put into circulation by patients who phone the OPP, claiming their pills were stolen so they can request an early refill from their doctor.
Det. Sgt. Belluz said while some of those claims are legitimate, others are abuses of the system.
In fact, a coroner’s inquest into painkiller prescription currently is underway in Brockville, Ont. following the deaths of Donna Bertrand and Dustin King.
Bertrand already was a drug addict when she was prescribed OxyContin to treat a back injury. She then told her doctor that her prescriptions were being stolen and that she needed an increased dosage.
But locally, the medical community is acutely aware of the potential danger in a bottle of OxyContin.
“I have to give our local medical doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, and so forth all the credit in the world because 10 years ago it was a relatively new drug on the market and there were problems with prescriptions and so forth,” Dennis noted.
“I can say today that doctors are extremely aware of the dangers of prescribing pain relief pills.”
Det. Sgt. Belluz also highlighted the importance of educating the medical community, and those at risk of being robbed of their medication.
“I’ve made arrangements to go and speak to seniors here in Thunder Bay,” he noted. “Unfortunately, they’re becoming victims, as well, because you’ve got people actually going to the old folks’ homes, preying on older folks that have these prescriptions and trying to dupe them out of their pills.”
Elder Gilbert Smith of Naicatchewenin, the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program worker for the band, said he’s still learning about the pill addictions, in particular.
“Now I’m getting into [learning about] this pill addiction but I’m not too clear on that yet,” he admitted. “I need to educate myself more.
“I won’t pretend to know what I’m getting into, but we have a guide there that’s going to guide me, that policy.
“There’s going to be a lot of new doorways opening up so that we can help these people that are struggling with their addiction,” Smith added.
The policy is a “living document,” said Chief Smith, and as it changes to include testing for more contractors in the future, the goal always will be to nourish a healthy community.