Antidepressant Wellbutrin becomes ‘poor man’s cocaine’ on Toronto streets

Video: A popular antidepressant has found its way to the streets & become known as the “poor man’s cocaine.” Global National’s Jen Tryon explains.

WARNING: This post contains graphic images that some viewers may find disturbing.

TORONTO – The first time Marty MacDonnell injected Wellbutrin he had no idea what else was going into his veins.

He gets the drug from his doctor to treat depression. It’s one of Canada’s most popular and easily accessible prescription drugs. He also buys it on the streets, where it can go for $2.50 per pill.

In fact, some refer to it as the “poor man’s cocaine.”

Users say it gives them a crack-like high at a much cheaper price.

“I’ve got, in all my time using it, I’ve probably got a good rush maybe half a dozen times, like it was an actual cocaine high,” MacDonnell said. “The rest of the time it’s just speed. Or like a high dose of caffeine just keeps me very alert, that’s about it.”

Story continues below advertisement

But, on some nights he has taken as many as 10 pills.

Bupropion, the pharmaceutical name for Wellbutrin, is also marketed as the smoking cessation drug Zyban, which can be bought over the counter without a prescription.

The pill contains binding agents that make it easy to swallow. They’re harmless when the pill is taken properly, but not when it’s crushed and inhaled or injected with a syringe.

The proof of the risks associated with shooting Wellbutrin or Zyban is all over MacDonnell’s body.

You can count on his skin nearly every time he’s done it.

“Somebody asked me what happened to my arm and I told them a shark bit me,” MacDonnell said.

Story continues below advertisement

Toronto’s The Works Needle Exchange and Harm Reduction Supplies has seen a steady rise in skin abscesses, collapsed veins and clogged arteries attributed to injecting Zyban and Wellbutrin.

“I’m very worried about Wellbutrin right now,” Toronto Public Health physician Dr. Leah Steele told Global News. “[It’s not] on the radar of most physicians.” The first time she heard of anyone abusing it was about three years ago, when a patient spoke of a friend injecting it.

Now, it’s estimated that nearly half of Toronto’s injection drug users have now tried it.

Story continues below advertisement

Out of 75 patients on a methadone program at The Works, Steele said half of them have tried injecting Wellbutrin. On top of that, she said it’s readily available in the prison system.

It also worried Dr. Dan Cass, Ontario’s Chief Coroner, who issued a warning about the Bupropion in May after at least six deaths as a result of abusing the drug.

“We’re aware of cases where the injection of the drug and the damage to the tissue from that injection is what directly lead to the death,” Cass told Global News.

“When used in the way it’s prescribed it’s a relatively safe and fairly effective drug,” he said. “[But] one of the properties when it’s ground up and injected is it’s very caustic, so it tends to do a lot of damage to issues and to some of the deeper structures.”
“One death in particular involved an injection into a blood vessel in the neck,” he explained. “The subsequent damage to the tissue cased damage to the spinal cord and [the individual] bled to death.”
Story continues below advertisement

Cass is trying to warn physicians about the potential for Wellbutrin and Zyban abuse.

“I think the thing that surprises me most about this is that people continue to do it even after they’ve developed the most gruesome lesions that you could imagine,” Steele said. “The drug is still compelling enough for them to keep injecting it.”

“These wounds from Wellbutrin are different because they really erode the whole tissue around the injection area,” Steele said, adding the wounds can get “very invasive infections” that can lead to death.

MacDonnell has been treated for wounds on his skin, some of which have gone so deep they’ve reached the bone.

Trevor Owens/Global News

“That’s when I woke up I took a look at my arms and said ‘Oh, Jesus. You’d better smarten up and get something done with this,'” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

The problem for MacDonnell is that he still needs to take Wellbutrin.

“I’ve suffered depression most of my life, so I think that’s how I got on it,” he said. It has also helped him smoke less.

He’s trying to get off of it, but he’s addicted.

“I didn’t like people looking at me,” he said referring to his arms. “It’s embarrassing, but I’m the one who did it to myself. I don’t want to go back to that.”

*This story was compiled for the web by Nick Logan based on research by Global’s Senior Investigative Correspondent Jennifer Tryon

Sponsored content