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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

The opioid epidemic

BY Xavier Kataquapit Apr 26, 2019

Far too often, even up here in northern Ontario wonderful young people are passing away because they took a drug so powerful they had no way of knowing it would kill them. The opioid epidemic over the past decade, and more recently with the arrival of fentanyl, means that many more young people are dying.

Fentanyl, which started out as a prescription medication, is now illegally produced in many parts of the world, mainly in China and Mexico. It is an extremely powerful opioid created for pain management. It is also is incredibly toxic. People most of the time have no idea how easily they can overdose on this drug.

Fentanyl can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine and up to 40 times stronger than heroin. It is often mixed with these drugs, and occasionally with cocaine. People who are into partying and taking risks like this drug because it provides a very quick high. When mixed with other drugs it becomes very dangerous and even a miniscule amount can kill – which it does by stopping the respiratory system.

It is so toxic that anyone dealing with an overdose victim is advised not to perform full CPR as incidental contact with the drug can harm or kill the first responder. When it is suspected that fentanyl is present in a room or vehicle, that area will often be quarantined and cleaned up. Exposure to a tiny amount can be fatal.

Thousands of people are dying of fentanyl overdoses every year in Canada, leading medical and addiction specialists to say we are in an epidemic. Most of those who take it are unsuspecting and in many ways are people we consider as normal – gainfully employed and without a criminal record.

There has been a recent history of pharmaceutical companies pushing new opioid drugs onto the market as painkillers. Although some of this was directed to patients in the medical system requiring substantial pain relief, it was often easily prescribed and resulted in terrible addictions. People did not realize that when they had a tooth pulled and got a prescription for drugs like OxyContin they could end up with a powerful addiction.

Just one of these pharmaceutical giants – Purdue – earned more than $35 billion US in 2017 alone. Their motivation is clear: win phenomenal riches, no matter the cost to society.

Some people who succumb to these opioids are dealing with mental illness and chronic addiction problems, but mostly those dying are a normal representation of our society.

In the Native community, the small-sized doses and easy transportation and smuggling of these drugs make it far too easy to move them into remote northern communities. The ease of access, the ease of transport and the highly addictive quality of these drugs are devastating Native communities.

We all have to work a little harder at educating our youth about the dangers of drug abuse and addictions. The so-called war on drugs has a history of not working and only ends up criminalizing people who are already helpless. We have to look at continued criminalization of the drug dealers and producers, but change our attitude in dealing with the addicts and users. They need to be cared for and directed towards a healthier lifestyle.

We also have to make sure the huge pharmaceutical companies that are responsible for pushing these drugs onto the market are regulated to a higher degree. The same goes for our medical professionals who have been prescribing these terrible drugs. I had a hard enough time making it through all of the addiction obstacles I ran into as a teenager in the 1990s and I know very well that being a teen today is way more difficult. You can end up dead just for ingesting some small amount of a drug at a party. That is unacceptable.

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.