Task force taking group approach to opiate problem

Duane Hicks

With the abuse of prescription drugs like oxycontin on the rise, a community task force has been established to address the problems arising from the increasing amount of opiate addiction in Rainy River District and First Nations’ communities.
OPP Insp. Dave Lucas, who last week was appointed as the new detachment commander of the Kenora OPP, informed delegates at the Ontario Association of Police Service Boards Zone 1 semi-annual meeting here in Fort Frances that representatives from pharmacies, aboriginal agencies, counselling services, dental offices, prevention programs, police services, and health care have come together to discuss the problem—and are trying to find both short-term and long-term solutions.
Insp. Lucas admitted he didn’t know much about this kind of opiate abuse until two years ago, when it became very clear it was a problem in Rainy River District.
“I asked myself, ‘Why didn’t I know about this if it is such a huge issue?’” he remarked, adding it quickly became evident there are no regulations to control how these drugs are prescribed.
“I was very dismayed when I saw hundreds of communities in North America where there had been epidemics, and here we are, we finally catch up, and we really haven’t learned anything from what has already happened,” added Insp. Lucas. “I was pretty disappointed with that.
“So we asked ourselves, ‘At what point do you say we have a problem?’
“Every community has a drug problem, there’s drugs in every community,” he stressed. “But at what point do you say, ‘This has become such an epidemic that we have to have community integrated response?’”
Insp. Lucas said that in early 2008, he met with Lori Maki, vice-president of clinical services at Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc., and they decided to get together community partners to see if everyone was experiencing strong indicators of opiate addiction here.
From a law enforcement perspective, police saw a rash of break-and-enters, both real and staged by people who were prescribed drugs, sold them, and then reported their drugs stolen so they could get more.
They also had problems with prisoners who claimed to be on oxycontin for a real medical condition, but if given the chance would crush and snort it like an addict.
Pharmacies have reported problems with stolen prescriptions, forgery, and people trying to get a prescription filled at one pharmacy and then trying to get it filled at another, as well.
Pharmacists also have had to deal with the question of whether their customers are taking their drugs—or selling them.
Police also have been called to pharmacies when suspicious people have been reported there around closing time, potentially endangering staff.
Insp. Lucas said the emergency department at the hospital has seen “pregnant women, addicted newborns, and a lot of trauma related to the use of this drug,” adding that because of this, emergency physicians no longer will administer oxycontin because of the desperate antics of addicts.
He noted doctors and dentists also have seen a rise in the number of patients asking for oxycontin prescriptions, and the number of people seeking methadone treatment continues to increase here—with the latest numbers estimated at nearly 100.
Insp. Lucas also said there has been a marked increase in the demand for drug counselling, especially for those under 18 years of age. One counsellor indicated 80 percent of their clients were opiate addicts.
Insp Lucas said the problem also has prompted the formation of Parents Against Illicit Narcotics (PAIN), a group lobbying for drug treatment for youths.
Meanwhile, social services have reported child neglect issues associated with opiate abuse while the Canadian Mental Health Association has reported clients, who are legitimately on medications, being harassed by drug dealers.
With opiate abuse clearly identified as a problem here, Insp. Lucas said the task force has since come together and currently consists of about 30 members working together for an integrated community response, with room for growth.
The task force currently is focusing its attention on four “pillars,” including law enforcement, prevention, education, and treatment, with various community members assigned to each pillar.
For example, goals under law enforcement include education of the judiciary and police, revamping court case management to “red flag” drug offenders causing the most harm to the community, work with probation and parole services, getting a member of the OPP drug enforcement section to join the pillar, and contributing to an opiates task force pamphlet.
The task force’s next meeting is in February, at which time the various pillars will report what they think needs to be done.
“[The task force] is kind of in its inception, but I feel it is going to be very successful once we start working together,” said Insp. Lucas, adding he feels it is possible to make a difference.
Kim Metke, owner of Pharmasave and the Fort Frances Clinic Dispensary, agreed opiate abuse is a big problem here, adding he’s aware of at least one dealer in his own neighbourhood.
“It is right here, right now,” he stressed.
As reported in last week’s Times, Metke still is planning to open a methadone treatment centre in Fort Frances this spring (it will be located at the former Home Suite Home furniture store on Scott Street).
He explained that methadone treatment is essentially replacing one opiate with another, but the difference is methadone is a slow release opiate and the patient does not get high off it.
The purpose of the treatment is not so much to cure the addict as it is about reduction of harm, noted Metke, adding addicts have described withdrawal as having the worst case of the ’flu multiplied by a hundred and they will stop at nothing to get their next fix.
“We are trying to stop these people from going into withdrawal and therefore not have to involve themselves in these drug-seeking activities, which are mostly break-and-enters,” he noted.
“Will they do muggings? Will they do purse snatchings? Will they do just about anything you could name of?
“Yeah, and some I couldn’t even think of,” remarked Metke.
As such, he’s putting in a methadone clinic not so much as a treatment facility but to help protect the community at large.
While many asked why doctors continue to write prescriptions for oxycontin when it is so addictive and prone to abuse, Metke said one of the problems is there currently are no strong guidelines to monitor who is getting these drugs.
He suggested communities get together and lobby the Ontario Medical Association to make changes.
On the same note, Insp. Lucas said that while the police continue to investigate other types of drug trafficking here, what makes oxycontin and the like so frustrating to deal with is it is a prescription drug.
“We should be able to control this,” he noted.
Held at La Place Rendez-Vous, 40-50 delegates from police services boards from Marathon to the Manitoba border met for registration and a mix-and-mingle last Wednesday evening, then attended workshops and underwent training all day Thursday and Friday morning.
These included a presentation by U.S. Customs regarding the Department of Homeland Security, one on Safe Communities Rainy River District, another on Treaty #3 police operations, and how the Treaty #3 Police Service interacts with other police service boards and the OPP.
Other presentations included one on dealing with students by local OPP community services officer Cst. Anne McCoy, one regarding the relationship between police services boards and municipal councils, and another covering parents taking an active role in their children’s online safety.