BROCKVILLE, ONT. - Teenagers call them “Smartie parties.”
Youth in eastern Ontario have increasingly been raiding their parents' medicine cabinets and throwing parties where they pass around bowls full of various prescription medications, Staff Sgt. Shawn White of the Cornwall Community Police Service told the ongoing Brockville, Ont., coroner's inquest into the 2008 deaths of Dustin King and Donna Bertrand on Monday.
King, 19, and Bertrand, 41, died days apart in the same Brockville, Ont., apartment from overdoses on prescription opiate drugs.
White, head of the force's criminal investigations branch, said the people who attend these parties are misinformed about the potential perils of the drugs they are taking.
“They are often under the mistaken impression that these drugs must be safe if they were prescribed by a doctor,” he said.
White, who is part of a task force set up in eastern Ontario in 2009 to combat oxycodone abuse in the area, said its research indicates teens are increasingly joining the market for illegal consumption of prescription opioids.
He referenced the 2007 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, in which 21% of respondents said they had used prescription drugs in a recreational manner. One in five of these students, White said, had used prescription opioids illegally.
“We had alarming evidence showing us this was what was going on in Ontario.”
In 2009 alone, police in Cornwall, Ont., seized 2,108 oxycodone-based tablets, with a value estimated at $50,000 on the street.
“You could see it became the drug of choice,” he said.
Interrelated with this rise in prescription-drug abuse was a sharp increase in property crimes for the purpose of feeding and funding these addictions, he said.
“A lot of people we arrested said they were committing these crimes due to an oxycodone addiction,” he said.
Between April 2008 and April 2010, he said, eight deaths in Cornwall were linked to the possible abuse of these drugs.
“If I had eight homicides in two years, the community would be in an uproar,” said White.
He also laid out some of the research the task force has done: Investigations that have revealed the nature of the prescription opioid problem throughout eastern Ontario.
“In a four-month span in 2010, there were 30 pharmacy robberies in Ottawa,” he said, adding that many of the incidents involved “a significant amount of violence.”
Like others who have testified in the inquest, White too believes an electronic pharmaceutical database and greater availability of patient prescription information are paramount to fighting the prescription opioid epidemic.
“Some provinces already have this in place,” he said. “Their problems have been much less than what we have in Ontario.”
He mentioned the rise of double-doctoring, in which drug-seekers go to different doctors in different communities to set up another supply of prescription opioids.
“A pharmacy in Cornwall isn't likely to contact one in Brockville or Kingston,” he said.
When it comes to feeding their addictions, White said, prescription opioid abusers have found ways to keep a steady supply going.
“Addicts are now going to the bordering, outlying communities to get the size of supply they are used to,” he said.
Under questioning from Donna Bertand's sister, Joanna, White also noted the problem isn't one confined to street-level crime.
“It's not a drug isolated along economic lines,” he said. “There are health-care professionals I know of who have become addicted to prescription opioids.”
White made four recommendations for battling prescription opioid abuse.
First off, community partners, especially health-care professionals, should develop strategies based on prevention, intervention and suppression, he said.
He also called for changes to be made to the Personal Health Information Protection Act so police can be better informed of patient drug records.
He said drug education in schools should begin as early as age 10.
Lastly, he called on the province to allocate more money toward addiction treatment.
The inquest is expected to wrap up this week, at which time the five-member jury will have the opportunity to provide recommendations on the future of monitoring of prescription opioids.