Kelowna: Challenging stereotypes of drug users

"If you had a loved one who was in pain and needed that service, wouldn't you want that for them?"

When Paul was 24, he was hit by a train.

To save his life, doctors amputated two  limbs, performed various surgeries to fix a crushed pelvis and cosmetic procedures to reduce the look of the damage he incurred to his face.

It was a painful series of events that turned him onto a path he’s still follows today.

“When I went home from the hospital, they put me on Tylenol 3s —lots of them, every day,” said Paul, who’s now 47.

T3s turned out to be insubstantial when stacked up against the injuries he incurred, but doctors did have a reason for their course of action.

Just two years before the accident, Paul weaned himself from a crack addition and they didn’t want to prescribe anything that would threaten his sobriety.

“I was hit by a train. I didn’t just stub my toe,” he said. “So I started seeking opiates myself, on the street.”

Morphine was his drug of choice but when it wasn’t available, he’d substitute.

“Then I’d find oxycodin or heroin, but primarily it was morphine,” he said.

“It helped. It always was an addiction because I wanted to be pain free. To be pain free I had to use, not letting my doctor know.”

On occasions he’d tell doctors what he was going through, they’d say he had drug-seeking behaviours, as though the addiction was more relevant than his pain.

“If doctors aren’t going to help you with pain relief, you have no choice,” he said.

This situation, he’s learned over the years, is more common than many realize.

“When you think of opiates and people who use them,  it’s not just some scuzz-ball off the street … some sort of waste of society,” he said. “It’s people who have legitimate pain. Nurses, home-healthcare aids, the people who work at your corner stores— these are the people I know using opiates. There is no profile.”

These users, he said, could all benefit from the supervised injection sites and overdose emergency services being set up in cities across the province.

Especially given what’s currently available on the streets. By now most everyone has likely heard that there’s a state of emergency related to drug overdose deaths in B.C.

During a Monday press conference, provincial officials announced a total of 128 total people died from illicit drug

overdose deaths in November – the highest monthly death total in 2016.

Those stats brings the year-to-date death toll to 755, compared to 443 in the same time period in 2015.

The difference between now and then is fentanyl and, most recently, carfentanil. These drugs are infinitely more potent and toxic than their predecessors and they’re being blamed for the loss of lives.

It’s worrisome to Paul.

He now has a stronger prescription than the T3s he was once dealt, but still occasionally turns to off-market dealers when something goes wrong.

“Some of the appointments are tough for me to attend,” he said, pointing to his physical limitations as one of the things that stop him from filling his prescription.

This weekend, for example, the drugstore changed its hours and Paul got there an hour after it closed.

“If I don’t get something I can’t sleep a wink,” he said. “I toss and turn

and it’s excruciating. I have extreme phantom pain from my injuries.”

So he sought morphine from an off market source. If he couldn’t find that, he would have gone for something else.

“If I can’t get that then I will do heroin,” he said.

He trusts his dealer, but even those who disperse drugs can’t be sure what they’re handling these days.

“A lot of people are getting fentanyl when they think they’re getting heroin,” he said.

Emergency overdose services are so important in combatting that trend, he said.

“Everybody thinks it would be good,” he said. “People wouldn’t have to hide to take their drugs and they wouldn’t have to find a buddy to do them. They would would know that if anything happened there are trained professionals nearby…. If you had a loved one who was in pain and needed that service, wouldn’t you want that for them?”


** Paul’s last name has been removed by request.