Opinion Column

Why addicts still play Russian roulette with fentanyl drugs

By Bill Tieleman, News, Views, and Attitude – 24 hours

Fentanyl (File Photo)

Fentanyl (File Photo)

"People doing drugs now are dope-sick and it’s so painful, you’d rather die." - Constance Barnes, Overdose Prevention Society

The day you read this column, four people in British Columbia will die of a drug overdose, two-thirds due to the powerful opioid fentanyl.

That means 1,500 people will die in just one year. It’s the equivalent of four jumbo jets loaded with passengers crashing at Vancouver International Airport in 12 months – unthinkable.

Yet many people ask: why would anyone in their right mind play Russian roulette with their life by taking cocaine, ecstasy or heroin that could be laced with deadly fentanyl?

And that’s exactly the problem, Constance Barnes of Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society said in an interview Sunday.

“When you’ve been on drugs for months or years, you’re not thinking clearly,” says Barnes. “If you’re dope-sick and hurting and someone comes along with drugs and says there might be fentanyl in it – they’re still going to take it.”

“You can’t just stop – addicts have a thinking problem,” said Barnes, who has been in recovery from alcohol addiction herself for eight years after the former Vancouver Park Board Commissioner had a highly-publicized car crash while under the influence in 2009.

So Barnes can relate to the up to 700 people who daily use pop-up safe drug consumption sites, where they can inject, smoke or ingest drugs with medically trained volunteers watching to prevent overdoses.

“This is an absolute disease – as if you were diagnosed with cancer,” she says. And it is a disease – it’s very much feeling uncomfortable in your own skin.”

Barnes says many people using drugs have schizophrenia or other mental illnesses or enormous psychological pain.

“There isn’t anybody out there using drugs who wasn’t abused, a victim of incest, raped, uncomfortable for some reason,” she said. “Heroin will just numb it. You mask it.”

Overdose Prevention Society founder Sarah Blyth is frustrated there isn’t more public demand for services.

“It’s not hitting home the way it should because of the stigma,” Blyth said in an interview Sunday.

Barnes says too many people believe drug addiction is a personal decision when “it’s a disease, not a choice.”

The decision that is costing lives isn’t made by the drug addicted – it’s the choice of those who don’t bother to care or help.

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist. Read his blog at billtieleman.blogspot.com. Twitter: @BillTieleman