I’ve worked on a lot of hidden camera investigations as a journalist, but I’ve never done one quite like this before. I was sitting on a park bench and I was about to buy narcotics. You might be thinking I was looking for heroin or cocaine, but believe it or not, this was an undercover drug buy for prescription pills.
Powerful painkillers called opioids are only supposed to be available through a doctor’s prescription for people looking for relief from pain, but as I was about to find out -- it’s easy to find someone else’s prescription for sale. And even though this buy was new for me, for some who are addicted, a street buy is a fact of life.
If you’re in pain these drugs can be a blessing. But, they can also be addictive: there’s an estimated 200,000 non-medical users dependent on prescription opioids in Canada. In the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, the problem has reached a boiling point.
It’s a sad statistic: 269 deaths in Nova Scotia linked to prescription opioids in the last five years alone. It’s no wonder that people like Kentville’s Police Chief Mark Mander call the prescription drug problem a crisis. The drug of choice in the Annapolis Valley seems to be a prescription opioid called hydromorphone. In the last five years, it’s been linked to one third of the prescription opioid deaths in the entire province.
As we researched this story, the one thing we kept hearing over and over again from folks in the Annapolis Valley is just how easy it is to find prescription pills for sale on the street. We wanted to find out if that was really true, so we put out the word that we were looking.
We weren’t in town long before I got a call to meet for a deal. I had also heard there would be a line-up in front of a medical clinic that specializes in pain management and methadone treatment and I might find prescription drugs for sale there. This seemed unbelievable. Surely people wouldn't just offer to sell a prescription drug right near a clinic, would they?
Sure enough -- about half an hour before the clinic opened, a line-up formed. And I did meet a couple in line who offered to deal - they claimed to have a stash of 600 pills, but not on them. We arranged to meet them the next day.
The woman with the prescription for hydromorphone seemed to have plenty to spare -- she claimed to have multiple prescriptions from more than one doctor and she said they kept upping her dose when she told them she needed more. I handed over $200 and she gave me 20 pills -- 6 mg hydromorphone.
It seems someone else’s prescription is pretty easy to buy, but it’s not a problem that’s limited to the Annapolis Valley. Chief Mander says that “across Canada the drug dealer of preference…is the health care system”.
Chief Mander and his team do undercover investigations to go after individual drug traffickers, but they’d prefer to go after the supply right at the source: the doctors who write the prescriptions. But, Mander says they need better legislation in order to get control of the problem. “One would hope that we can get control because right now all we’re doing is pumping out addicts.”
You can watch our report to find out more.
- Research on prescription opioid use in Canada: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2789126/pdf/1810891.pdf; http://www.painphysicianjournal.com/2012/july/2012;15;ES191-ES203.pdf
- Study on effectiveness of B.C.’s real-time prescription monitoring program: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2012/09/04/cmaj.120465.full.pdf
- Medical Officer of Health Report on Drug Related Overdoses in the Annapolis Valley: http://www.gov.ns.ca/health/Drug-related-overdose-DrGould-report.pdf
- NS Ministry of Health and Wellness Initiatives: http://www.gov.ns.ca/DHW/Working-Group-Recommendations-Prescription-Drug-Overdoses.pdf http://novascotia.ca/news/release/?id=20120516002
- Auditor-General Report on the N.S. Prescription Monitoring Program (see Chapter 5): http://www.oag-ns.ca/may2012/fullreport.pdf
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