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Vince’s journey

Prescription-drug abuse is killing Nova Scotians and ruining lives. Solving the problem is a tough fight

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Stock photo.

Stock photo.

Vince Devereaux was sick of going to prison. It was five years ago when he realized he’d been in and out of jail for some 23 years, starting at age 18. He began experimenting with drugs and alcohol in his early teens. By the time he was 17, he was addicted to crack. Since he didn’t have a job, he supported his addiction by stealing from department stores.

“I probably have about 16 years done inside the prison walls,” says Devereaux. “Drugs have controlled most of my life, and opiates are probably the worst drugs I’ve been addicted to. I thought cocaine was.” Opioid addiction has become common. In April, the National Post reported that a public-health crisis in British Columbia, as 200 people died of fentanyl overdoses in just three months.

According to the 2012 Nova Scotia Student Drug Use Survey, 16.4 per cent of Grade 12 students reported “non-medical use of pain relief pills such as: Percocet, Percodan, Tylenol 3, Demerol, Oxycontin, and codeine.” To put that in perspective, the survey also showed that 7.6 per cent of Grade 12 students reported using MDMA, and 5.8 per cent reported using cocaine, and 10.1 per cent reported using psilocybin or mescaline.

“In Nova Scotia the street drug of choice for opioids is hydromorphone,” says Amy Graves, founder of Get Prescription Drugs off the Streets (a lobby group fighting prescription drug abuse). “I think it has a lot to do with doctor’s prescribing habits. In Nova Scotia, the prescription drugs that people are dying from and becoming addicted to are still coming from our health-care centres.”

This may improve soon though—in June of this year, CBC reported that the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons have adopted the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, which cuts recommended dosages and stresses the importance of caution when prescribing.

Guideline recommendations include trying non-pharmaceutical therapies first, prescribing and continuing opioid therapy only when the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, and ensuring that the patient is fully educated on possible risks or benefits. The recommendations also say, “When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage. Clinicians should use caution when prescribing opioids at any dosage, should carefully reassess evidence of individual benefits and risks when considering increasing dosage.”

Which means that although these newly adopted guidelines may help reduce the number of people who will become addicted to opioids, there are still plenty of people out there who have already been hurt. And for Devereaux, once he started, it was nearly impossible to stop.

“The sickness you get with opiates… you need it to get up out of bed, and when you don’t have it, there are physical things that happen to you,” he says. “You can have bowel movements that you can’t control, you throw up. The thing is, I would have to have it, and whatever way I had to go get it, I did it. Some people get into the sex thing and thank God I never had to do that. I could go out and steal.”

In total, Devereaux estimates that he’s spent a total of about 16 years in prison between the ages of 18 and 41. With one exception, he didn’t use drugs while he was serving time. “It was a survival thing. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t want to get caught up in borrowing and not being able to pay back,” he says. “Things go on in prison and you can get yourself hurt, and I’ve seen many people get hurt.

He also spent time in addiction programs, but full participation was not just difficult, it was risky. “You’ve got to remember, you’re with convicts,” says Devereaux. “So you go through these programs, but you’ve got to live with these guys, too. You can’t show weakness. Going in and elaborating on everything and thinking that you know everything that can cause a lot of problems.”

But one morning, he woke up in prison and decided he was sick of it all. He knew there was help out there, because he’d been to Narcotics Anonymous. When he got out, he enrolled in a program at Alcare Place on Robie Street, but he relapsed after about a year. The relapse lasted about six months.

“I think the turning point was I got caught stealing in a store, and I got a break,” says Devereaux. “I thought, ‘I’m getting a break here, so I’m going to make a “change’ … [It’s] a task every day to stay clean.”

We last spoke with Devereaux in April. He was attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and trying to get a casual job at Alcare. He was almost finished at the methadone clinic. He was sharing his stories in schools through the 7th Step Society of Canada, a non-profit that helps repeat offenders integrate into regular society. (For more on 7th Step, check out Priya Sam’s story in the May 2016 issue of Halifax Magazine.)

Before publishing this story, Halifax Magazine made several attempts to contact Devereaux for an update. We wanted to know if he got the job he was hoping for, and if he was still visiting schools. Eventually, a man answered his phone, but it wasn’t Devereaux. When we asked to speak to Devereaux, the man told us he was away. So we emailed again, and waited a month for a response, without hearing from him.

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