First Nation Leader Fears Mass Catastrophe From OxyContin Withdrawal


Thousands of First Nations members living on Ontario reserves are addicted to the powerful painkiller OxyContin, says Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Chief Stan Beardy, reported CBC News. NAN is a political territorial organization representing 49 First Nation communities within northern Ontario. Membership (on and off reserve) totals roughly 45,000—and the organization estimates nearly half of those people are addicted to the drug.

The active ingredient in Oxycontin is oxycodone, an opium derivative like morphine. Users often swallow the pill whole or chew it. Others crush the drug and snort it, or dissolve the pills and inject the fluid by needle, resulting in a "heroin-like euphoria," according to Health Canada.

At the end of February, Purdue Pharma Canada, the maker of OxyContin, will stop manufacturing the drug in Canada. The pharmaceutical manufacturer will replace it with OxyNEO, a "safer" drug formulated to be "more difficult to be manipulated for the purpose of misuse and abuse," according to Purdue Pharma.

Beardy says the decision to stop producing OxyContin will spark a health crisis.

"It scares me. It’s going to be a catastrophe," Beardy said, fearing a "mass involuntary opiate withdrawal."

Withdrawal symptoms typically include "irritability, profuse sweating, abdominal cramping and diarrhea,” detoxification anesthesiologist, Dr. Clifford A. Bernstein, told “This agonizing withdrawal is the reason why most of those with dependencies cannot stop taking the drugs.”

"I don’t think governments understand the severity of addictions we’re talking about here," Beardy said.

In November 2009, NAN Chiefs-in-Assembly declared a state of emergency over OxyContin abuse. On multiple occasions since, they have requested assistance from Health Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Nearly 2,000 members of Matawa First Nations communities were reported addicted to opioids on February 6. Last month, the chief of the Cat Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency, estimating 70 per cent of the community's members, including children as young as 11, suffered from opioid dependency.

"These people will be very, very sick," said Benedikt Fischer, director of the Centre for Applied Mental Health and Addictions at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, of the imminent consequences of drastically cutting off OxyContin use to addicts.