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Guy-Pierre Lévesque knows all about the consequences of heroin addiction. Now 55 years old, he started doing morphine at age 20, then heroin a year later. It consumed his life. He lost his job, his car, his house. He stole for years to support a habit that lasted until he was 39.
While getting clean, he found a new obsession: helping other addicts. He spearheaded the creation of the pioneering Méta d’Âme centre, which opened its doors last summer in the Sainte-Marie district.
Lévesque’s small office is crammed with books and paperwork. On the wall in the adjoining meeting room are paintings that clients drew as part of the facility’s art class. He is frequently invited to speak internationally about the facility – the world’s only peer-run drop-in centre and residence for opiate users and ex-users.
The centre offers clients 26 small apartments and works with them and walk-in visitors to help turn their lives around. Also available are laundry facilities, computers with Internet access, a rooftop veggie garden, cooking classes and warm meals prepared by residents and volunteers.
The facility also accompanies addicts to appointments and helps them find one of those ever-elusive treatment spots.
Demand for Méta d’Âme’s services has shot up. At the beginning of the decade, when it operated only as a drop-in centre, four or five clients would come in per day. Earlier this year, before it moved into its new digs, 15 to 20 clients were coming in each day.
And the clientele is getting younger. “When I started doing heroin, people began to use when they were 19 or 20 years old. Today, some are 14,” Lévesque said.
Sylvie Des Roches has noticed the same trend. “We’re seeing an increase in abuse among young people, and we’re seeing them start at a younger age,” she says.
Des Roches is director of CRAN, the city’s largest opiate-addiction treatment centre, located at the corner of Prince Arthur and St. Urbain Sts.
The growing addiction problems have swamped her centre and others across the province, she said.
CRAN now has 90 opiate users aged 18 to 34 enrolled in its most intensive treatment program for hard-core addicts. That’s more than double the 34 who were in the program in 2007.
“We find ourselves with clients who ask for treatment whom we can’t help,” Des Roches said.
“It’s a problem because when a young person wants treatment, they can’t be on a waiting list since they can overdose or commit suicide.”
Indeed, that’s what appears to be happening. The Quebec coroner’s office has reported a 20-per-cent jump in accidental opiate overdose deaths since 2006, when the office started to track the data. The number of deaths went up from 64 in 2006 to 76 in 2008.
The opiate abuse is also leading to other problems. More than two-thirds of injection drug users have hepatitis C, while 18 per cent have HIV, said the Public Health Agency of Montreal in a report last week. It said the rates of both infections have gone up since 1998 (although no data was given on how much).
“It’s really an epidemic,” Lévesque said. One cause, he said, is the younger age of today’s users, who are less likely to be aware of the need to use clean needles to avoid passing on infections. “There’s more contamination among young people.”
Another growing problem, he said, is Afghan heroin is often less pure than the product from other countries. Wholesalers cut – or dilute – heroin with various products to fatten up their profit margins. They use everything from benign substances like flour and baby powder to more dangerous products like disinfectants, plaster and sawdust that can cause infection, poisoning and even death.
Other Canadian cities are also seeing a resurgence of heroin. In Toronto, 10,500 students in Grades 7 to 12 – or 1.1 per cent of all students in those grades – reported using heroin in the previous year in 2007, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
That was nearly two times the 0.6 per cent of students who reported the same thing in 2001.
Heroin use among Toronto students is now nearly back at the levels seen during the heroin heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s. That was when a global glut of cheap “junk” spawned the undead “heroin chic” look on fashion catwalks and claimed the lives of celebrities like actor River Phoenix and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvion.
In B.C., there is less exact data, but an adolescent health survey in 2008 noted a “small but significant increase” in heroin use among students in the previous five years. Quebec doesn’t publish data on heroin use rates among Montreal youth.
Canada is far from being the only country hit by the flood of Afghan opium. Among the worst-hit countries is Afghanistan itself, which has an estimated one million opiate addicts – eight per cent of the population. The number of heroin users has doubled in the past five years.
Ground zero of the impacts is Russia, a major transhipment route for Afghan heroin to Europe. There, the number of heroin addicts has exploded 10-fold in the past decade. President Dmitri Medvedev last year called the drug a threat to national security and accused Western nations of not doing enough to stop Afghan opium production.
A UN report last year put the problems in stark perspective. “The number of people who die of heroin overdoses in NATO countries per year (above 10,000) is five times higher than the total number of NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years,” it said.
“We need to go back to the dramatic opium addiction in China a century ago to find comparable statistics.”