Use of crystal meth, available on the street for as little as $5 a hit, is on the rise in the province and those who work on the front lines of addiction say it’s magnifying a lack of detox and rehab services.
“It’s a health crisis,” said Debby Warren, executive director of Ensemble, formerly known as AIDS Moncton.
Warren blames the stigma surrounding addiction for a public health calamity going unchecked.
“I don’t know any health situation where people have to go and prostitute themselves or steal to get their medication,” she said.
“We need decision-makers to step up and look at this situation and what it’s doing to our community.”
A survey last fall by the New Brunswick Community Alliance, which includes AIDS Moncton, AIDS Saint John and AIDS New Brunswick, suggests crystal methamphetamine is gaining popularity across the province.
Interviews were done with 72 people who use the needle exchange programs in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi.
Aggression, psychotic behaviour
Warren said crystal meth is “really quite scary” for the people who use and for the people around them.
People are injecting, snorting and smoking the powerful stimulant, and Warren and her staff regularly see those under its influence.
While it makes people feel euphoric, crystal meth also has a violent comedown that includes aggression, paranoia and hallucinations.
“We’ve had them tell us that they’re fearful for their lives, that there’s someone coming after them,” Warren said. “They hear sounds, they see things, they’re looking at people and they say that they have glowing eyes. Really psychotic.”
Crystal meth also leaves people unable to sleep. Warren has seen people up for as long as four days straight.
“They get sores because they think they’ve got bugs. So they’re picking at their skin and they’re getting infections on their skin, pulling on their hair, clawing at their faces.”
Cal Maskery also works on the front lines of addiction as executive director of Harvest House Atlantic, which offers an emergency shelter and a long-term, faith-based recovery program.
Maskery said he knew crystal meth was coming but had no idea “how bad it really was.”
“You can see the changes in people because they’re aggressive … never the aggression have we seen.”
‘You should see what it does to people’
Maskery said the appeal of crystal meth is that it costs just $5 to $10 per day.
“The two things I’ve heard about it is it’s the cheapest drug out there, but it’s the longest lasting. It can last for up to six to eight hours.”
In the survey by the New Brunswick Community Alliance, one respondent warned, “authorities need to get on top of the crystal meth thing or there’s going to be big problems.”
That person added: “You should see what it does to people. Once someone is on it for six months, they don’t give a damn about anything.”
In Miramichi, eight of 12 people in the survey mentioned the influx of crystal meth as the biggest change they had seen.
In Moncton, it was 11 of 20, while in Fredericton it was 15 of 20. In Saint John 13 of 20 respondents said people were moving from smoking crack cocaine to injecting cocaine.
The survey didn’t provide an estimate of the number of people who are using crystal meth but was meant as a “moment in time portrait of people who use drugs in New Brunswick.”
Among the other comments of needle-exchange users:
- “More and more young people on crystal meth, injecting. It’s the worst drug right now.”
- “People don’t know what they’re getting with crystal meth. Ninety-five per cent of people who try it once are hooked.”
- “Crystal meth is taking over the city big time.”
CBC News contacted the New Brunswick RCMP but no one has been available to comment on the rise of crystal meth.
In January, RCMP reported an increase in crystal meth around the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border.
At the time, Cpl. David Lane said it’s unclear why it’s showing up, but he added it’s not uncommon for drug traffickers to flood an area with product that proves popular.
Treatment options limited
Warren said the survey findings have been sent to the province to show the need to improve treatment options, especially long-term programs, for people addicted to crystal meth and other drugs.
Bernard Goguen, a consultant with the Department of Health’s addiction and mental health branch, said a short stay in a detoxification centre is the starting point. A stay can last between two and 10 days.
“It really is just to help the person go through the worst of the worst of the withdrawal management and also to provide some information and planning on what are some of the next steps in terms of the person’s treatment and recovery journey,” Goguen said.
There are 87 detox beds in Edmundston, Campbellton, Tracadie, Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi.
Wait times range from three to 21 days.
Maskery knows many people who end up on those waiting lists.
He also knows many people who have gone through detox, only to be released without any further support or access to long-term treatment.
“So they’re not fully detoxed when they’re coming out, and if they don’t get into the program, they’re going to turn back to the street level drugs, and it’s just a revolving door.”
Long-term treatment options limited
For people who want a long-term, residential program, Goguen said there are 24 beds, split between Saint John’s Ridgewood Addictions Services and Campbellton Addiction Services.
The wait ranges from two to six months.
“These are places they can go and receive a more comprehensive psychological, psycho-social treatment that focuses on skill-building, developing coping skills … possibly help them with trauma as well.”
Goguen said changes were made in September 2018 to the Campbellton program in an effort to offer mental health treatment at the same time, tailored to each individual.
“People with substance abuse issues quite often have mental health issues as well,” Goguensaid. “So the program in Campbellton is now a more individualized service, and stays range from 30 to 90 days.”
Goguen said it is much different from the old program, where everyone started their treatment on the same day and received the same services.
‘Something is really wrong in our society’
Goguen said demand for the 24 beds “has been really high.”
When asked if the province is considering adding more beds, he said it’s a “long process” to look at changes, and there is “lots of competition for resources.”
To Warren, it is clear that more resources need to be directed to long-term addictions and mental health treatment.
“I don’t want to insult the existing services, but it’s pretty much non-existent, right?”
With few options offered by government, Maskery and other faith-based groups in the Maritimes are trying to fill the gap with programs of their own.
In his experience, it takes at least nine months for people to get to the “inner issues or trauma” that are almost always at the root of their addiction.
The extent of drug use, he said, “tells us that something is really wrong in our society.”
Stigma of addiction strong
Goguen and Warren both believe the stigma of addiction is keeping people from asking for help.
“People are reluctant to come in for services,” Goguen said. “They fear judgment, they fear scorn, they fear rejection.”
Warren said the stigma that surrounds addiction also keeps people from talking about it, and that allows decision makers to ignore the issue.
She has seen many people in desperate need of medical attention avoid the hospital.
“Because one time the nurse looked at her and said, ‘Well maybe next time you’ll think twice before you stick a needle in your arm.'”
She remembers an intravenous drug user who put off going to the emergency room despite a serious infection.
When he arrived at the hospital, the nurse who met him illustrated the impact good health care can have, Warren said.
The nurse said, “‘Hmm, do you inject?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And that’s hard to admit because people are going to judge.”
Warren said the nurse then asked to see what kind of shape his veins were in.
“But she also said to him, ‘So what we’re going to do is we’re going to look at your veins and you’re going to save one for me. So if you ever come here and I need to save your life, I have a vein that’s open and ready to receive what I need to do with it.'”
“She validated his life,” Warren said. “Nobody chooses this — it’s not a way of life that they choose, and so we need to have services in place.”