The Hidden Consequences of Long-Term Opioid Use: A Look at the Toll on Canadians

The Hidden Consequences of Long-Term Opioid Use: A Look at the Toll on Canadians
Lampkin says his memory isn't what it was, and his once-long stride is now an agonizing shuffle.

The opioid crisis continues its devastating grip on Canada, particularly in British Columbia, with victims grappling with an array of health complications, including crumbling bones and potential brain injuries, according to a recent report by CBC News.

Hugh Lampkin, an overdose survivor, is testament to the long-term consequences of drug abuse. Having abused substances from pot to PCP since the age of 12, he’s now in his late 50s, having overcome addiction but suffering physically due to its long-term effects. “My memory isn’t what it was,” Lampkin revealed, as he described his now-painful shuffle on an East Hastings Street sidewalk in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. A fall a year and a half ago left his spine bent at an almost 90-degree angle, making every movement a challenge. “We were stacking some boxes one day and I fell off — and when I went to stand back up I couldn’t stand up straight and it’s been there ever since,” Lampkin shared.

British Columbia has witnessed over 13,000 opioid-related deaths since 2016. The B.C. Coroners Service confirmed an additional 175 suspected deaths in September alone. Although this is a 10% decrease compared to September 2022, it still averages to 5.8 drug deaths every day, primarily in Vancouver, Surrey, and Greater Victoria. Yet, of the 225,000 British Columbians using unregulated substances, fewer than 5,000 receive safe supply prescriptions, according to provincial data shared by CBC News.

Furthermore, the broader picture in Canada is equally grim. Opioid overdoses have taken 38,514 lives in the past seven years, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Many survivors, like Lampkin, struggle with injuries and chronic health issues that complicate their rehabilitation process.

Two men are seen on East Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on July 25. It’s common to see area residents with contorted spines, walkers and wheelchairs. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Medical experts are pushing for more research and support for victims. Brian Conway, director of Vancouver’s Infectious Disease Centre, emphasized the urgent need, stating, “The health-care system, currently designed, is failing the inner city.” He pointed out the visible evidence of the crisis, with many Downtown Eastside residents sporting contorted spines or relying on walkers and wheelchairs.

The alarming rate of hospitalizations across Canada due to overdoses and infections from injections is a growing concern. “There are more people that need more help in a different way,” Conway added, highlighting the dire consequences of infections spreading to bones, leading to osteomyelitis, which in turn causes bone collapse.

Adding to the complexity, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, emphasized the lack of understanding surrounding the effects of opioid damage and its impact on rehabilitation.

The rising prevalence of a non-addictive drug called Xylazine, often mixed with opioids like fentanyl, is becoming a pressing concern in the U.S., and traces of it are being detected in Vancouver. “This is a rising problem that we’re actually right now seeing in the United States. We are seeing it accelerate because of the presence of a new drug that is being used to lace fentanyl,” Volkow told CBC News.

Confronted with the adversity brought about by his past choices and their consequences, Lampkin remains resilient. For now, he perseveres through physiotherapy, walking as much as he can. “Some days I don’t feel so good. But that’s life, right? I’ve learned to live,” he concluded.