MOVING FORWARD - Chris Cull is a former opioid addict who decided to ride his bicycle accross Canada to examine the presence of opioids and opioid abuse as it ranged from province to province. His journey included hundreds of interviews ranging from former and current addicts to medical professionals and more.

Health officials continue to battle rising opioid use

Canadian cyclist Chris Cull shares his experience of escaping addiction

  • Wed Jan 13th, 2016 4:25pm
  • News

With opioid use in Alberta becoming increasingly more popular, opioid overdose prevention kits were released to the public last year through Alberta Health Services. Agencies such as Turning Point (formerly known as the Central Alberta Aids Network Society or CAANS) have taken on a large role in helping to distribute these overdose prevention kits.

Currently, the kits are being rolled out into rural communities to address the growing need to deal with the issue.

Jennifer Vanderschaeghe of Turning Point said they are hoping smaller rural communities can be reached through larger, nearby communities such as Stettler, Drayton Valley, Wetaskiwin, Maskwacis and Lloyminster. The kits are known as Naloxone or NarCan kits and come from Alberta Health Services.

“We really just want to reach more people – certainly people in Red Deer, but those outside of the City as well. We want to reach people in other cities, but also in the rural towns and villages.

“Anybody who feels like they are at risk for an opioid overdose can access a kit,” Vanderschaeghe said.

The kits come with two doses of Naloxone so that a person can use one or both, depending on the amount of opioids taken and the distance of the user from medical help. Since the Central Alberta program launch in July, 135 kits have been given out and 33 lives have been saved with 32 kits.

Chris Cull said he hopes his story of overcoming the addiction can help others to understand that they can move past it and onto better things for themselves.

Cull overcame his addiction to opioids after seven years of use and is now using his experience to explore the epidemic of opioid abuse across the country. He said he interviewed people from all walks of life to try and get the best understanding he could of the issue – something he describes as an epidemic.

“I lost my house. I lost my girlfriend of three and a half years. I spent six figures in cash just to sustain the addiction. I’ve seen people overdose. I’ve seen quite a bit over the years – that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

“I used to be a very bad opioid addict. I was using five 80mg Oxycontins a day for two years, went on methadone for five years and eventually got off that,” he said. “Over seven years of using and going to clinics, I’d seen all the ins and outs of how those clinics operate. Through my own experience I saw a lot of things and became very curious as to what opioid use is like across the rest of the country.”

In 2014, Cull rode a bicycle from Victoria, B.C. to St. Johns, NL documenting stories to be used in a film that would shine a light on opioid use. Sponsored by ORbeOK.ca, Cull was invited to ‘Inspire by Example’ and share his journey with opioids.

Opioids are medications often prescribed for pain, but can be easily abused and have a high rate of dependence. The prevalence of illicit opioid drug use has grown across the country, with a drug called fentanyl becoming increasingly present in various forms of opioids.

Cull is one of many Canadians who experienced an addiction to prescription opioids. He said the addiction is felt across the country and many areas are inadequately prepared to deal with the rampant use, especially in rural locations.

“With the rural areas, I found a lot of people were getting into opioids because of the accessibility of getting the drugs and the lack of resources to handle the potential outcomes of using these medications long-term,” he said.

“I found in rural areas especially that a lot of people get into the drugs because there is simply nothing else to do. Otherwise, somebody gets a hold of the drugs and sells them for a higher cost to make some money. That was a constant I saw across the entire country.”

Cull said that although rural areas are susceptible, urban centres and everywhere in between are feeling the increased presence of opioids. He interviewed a wide variety of people, from a former nurse who stole the drugs from her hospital to an addictions counselling specialist who had seen the epidemic grow over 50 years.

He spoke to family members who had seen loved ones die from opioid overdoses and to current users of opioids. He said the use ranged from heroin, to Oxycontin, to hydromorphone, caboxone, fentanyl and much more.

His experience as a former opioid addict allowed him to delve deeply into the world of opioid addiction and to gain a broad understanding of the federal issue.

“I could relate to these people because I’d been there. I knew what it was like,” Cull said.

“The benefit of my experience was that people would talk to me about their experiences with opioids because they knew I’d been there and that I wasn’t going to judge them. I had a deeper understanding of the stories I was documenting than most people.”

One of the things Cull noticed on his journey was that adequate resources to handle opioid addictions varied from province to province and from rural to urban settings.

“The excess of these pills that are being pushed out are starting an epidemic,” Cull said.

“The addictions are popular, and these numbers are growing so fast – I think opioid prescribing went up by something around 300 per cent since about 1999. It’s insane. It’s a very complex topic.”

kmendonsa@reddeerexpress.com