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Task force to battle 'hillbilly heroin' problem

BY KEITH LACEY klacey@northernlife.

The increased use and growing addiction problems related to the prescription medicine OxyContin is effecting so many people, a task force has been established in the city to tackle it before "things get completely out of control."

OxyContin is a synthetic opiate prescribed for pain relief. In recent years, people looking for a cheap high have crushed the pills and used them as a replacement for heroin, thus its street name "hillbilly heroin."

In addition to being found in many medicine cabinets at home, thieves seek it out in drug store break-ins.

Vicki Ridout-Kett is co-chair of the OxyContin/Narcotic Abuse Task Force and general manager of Access AIDS in Sudbury. She and other key leaders in the task force held a kickoff news conference Monday at Greater Sudbury Police headquarters.

Representatives from the medical and pharmaceutical community, along with local addiction centres, street workers, seniors, school boards and
recovering addicts are members of the task force.

They have agreed to work together to develop strategies to try and educate the public and provide services and treatment in a collaborative effort because OxyContin abuse is growing among all age groups, said Police Chief Ian Davidson, who is also a co-chair.

Const. Todd Marasatto spent four months collecting data and released a report Monday to coincide with the task force kickoff.

The active ingredient in OxyContin is oxycodone, which is very similar to morphine and is also found in percocet and percodan, other prescription drugs that have long been abused by addicts on the street.

City police investigations have determined two deaths per month were directly related to OxyContin abuse, and one death per month was directly related to an overdose, said Davidson.

"We quickly realized we had to do something to try to tackle this serious problem," he said. "We realized we would need a collective voice."

Like any drug abuse problem, those affected often resort to criminal behaviour to feed their addictions, said Davidson.

There has been a 400 percent increase in OxyContin use over the past five years on Canada's East Coast and many parts of the United States, said Davidson.

"It's not just a Sudbury problem, but one taking place across North America," Kett said. "It's an urban problem and rural problem...the nature and extent of the problem is huge."

According to the Ministry of Health, 325,000 OxyContin pills were dispensed in Greater Sudbury in 2003 and that amount increased to 385,000 in
2004 and this doesn't include people who have a private drug plan or pay cash for the drug.

A survey of 745 students in Grades 7 to 12 indicated 35 percent had ingested a prescription drug not prescribed to them and 20 percent had used a prescription drug to try and get high and these numbers are staggering and worrisome, said Kett.

Dr. Marc Dube, who has worked in treating addicts in Greater Sudbury for years, said the scariest part of the task force report is in the number of people who are experimenting with OxyContin and other prescriptions drugs as a means to find a cheap high.

Many addicts mix OxyContin and other prescription pills with alcohol "and this is a fatal mix," Kett said.

Local pharmacist James Delsaut said the pharmaceutical industry is at the forefront in the fight against OxyContin addiction and abuse because "we are the gatekeepers" who control and dispense the pills.

Pharmacists are calling on the government to provide legislation limiting the amount of pills they can dispense at any one time and reclassify opiates like OxyContin so they can only be dispensed in certain medical situations, he said.

Members of the public are invited to see a documentary featuring area high school students whose lives have been ravaged by OxyContin and prescription pill abuse. The special screening will take place Sunday at 10 am at Rainbow Cinemas.