As the provinces and the federal government work to address a “public health crisis” amid growing rates of opioid overdoses and deaths across the country, one Ontario man says that without fentanyl his quality of life would be destroyed.
The 48-year-old agreed to speak to Global News under condition of anonymity due to the stigma he faces as a user of the drug and the negative implications speaking out publicly could have on his life and career. For the duration of this article he will be referred to as “John.”
“I feel unfortunate that these people are dying over this, but this medicine is a very good medicine because it’s better for your body than taking a morphine tablet,” he said.
“I’ve been using this for years, it’s never been a problem – now it’s a problem because people are dying.”
John was in a severe accident years ago and uses fentanyl to manage chronic pain.
“This is a medication that works for me. There’s probably other people that feel the same,” he said, adding he’s tired of feeling like a criminal for using a drug that helps him function.
“What about people that are relying on this product?”
For John, even picking up a prescription at his local pharmacy makes him feel like he’s doing something wrong.
“They looked at me like I had two heads that I’m using this product,” he said, adding that he often has to justify his need for the drug despite his doctor’s support.
“It just helps me get through my daily life as I am. Hey listen, I don’t like taking it and it has its bad with the good, but for me to get up and continue my day to do what I can do with my limitations — this is the system, the way I have to go.
“I’d love to get off of it but I need something and Advil doesn’t cut it.”
WATCH: Ontario government unveils strategy to combat growing problem of deaths linked to opioids
Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced Wednesday several steps as part of Ontario’s “comprehensive opioid strategy” to prevent the “public health crisis” of addiction and overdoses.
The new measures include expanded access to the addiction treatment drug Suboxone and an additional $17 million a year on 17 chronic pain clinics.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, will also serve as the province’s first-ever overdose co-ordinator to better track patients who overdose on painkillers like fentanyl and hydromorphone.
The Ontario government has been criticized over its response to the opioid crisis in the province over concerns it didn’t have up-to-date information on how many people were overdosing.
The latest publicly available data showed opioid overdose deaths rose to 553 people in Ontario in 2014, while fentanyl-related deaths climbed to 153, according to the Chief Coroner for Ontario.
In Ontario, statistics on opioid overdose deaths are overseen by the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Office — but that data was last released in 2014. Meaning there is no up-to-date picture of how bad the problem currently is.
Global News obtained preliminary data from the chief coroner’s office for 2015, which showed there were 529 opioid overdoses in Ontario last year — 162 of which involved fentanyl.
WATCH: Minister of health under fire after Global News reports on opioid overdose death crisis
As part of Williams’ new role, he will work with the coroner’s office, police, hospitals, and public health officials to monitor all opioid-related overdoses.
“They need to come up with a better solution with what they’re doing right now, John said.
“It’s almost like you’re a heroin user. That’s the feeling that I get and it’s like — but I’m not. I don’t do drugs. That’s the only thing I take.”
John said he worked with his doctor to find a pain medication that suits him, after being prescribed drugs such as oxycodone and morphine in the past that have much stronger side effects.
He now takes a clinically controlled dose of 100 mcg/h of fentanyl in a patch that slowly distributes the drug over the course of two days.
“It’s not evil for people that need this product,” he said, adding he feels “horrible” when he’s forced to return his empty patches to pharmacies to prove he’s using it legitimately.
“I’m thinking there’s got to be another way.”
John said if the province were to restrict fentanyl prescriptions in the future in response to the growing issue of opioid overdoses, his life would be thrown into turmoil.
“Oh I’d be in trouble … I’d be probably going through lots of pain, not movement, plus probably the withdrawal of it too,” he said.
“It doesn’t fix it 100 per cent, but it makes me be able to move around and continue my life as much as I could. If I didn’t have it I know for sure I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
John said that due to his severe pain, he often has to leave Canada for several months to warmer climates in the U.S., but getting a three-month supply of fentanyl is difficult and problematic.
“When I’m going in and out of the country now I’m thinking, ‘Jeez, am I going to get arrested because of a medication that I’m taking?’,” he said.
“I’m worried coming back into Canada or going into another country and the dog’s sniffing — if they smell it I’m going to get hauled out of line.”
John said he feels as though the government may move to further restrict fentanyl in the future and he will be left without another option to manage his severe pain.
“I have a feeling in the next six months I’m not going to have that opportunity and nobody’s going to seem to care,” he said.
“Very few ruined it for probably a lot.”