Opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone and morphine are generally safe when used for short periods and as prescribed by a doctor. However, although opioids can be used to help people manage their pain, these drugs can also lead to addiction and other problems such as overdoses, health conditions, and even death. In fact, in 2016 alone there were over 42,000 opioid-related deaths recorded in Canada.
Unfortunately, non-medical use of opiates is on the rise in Canada and it threatens us all in one way or another. It is estimated that approximately 21% of Canada’s population will meet the criteria for addiction in their lifetime. And the rise in opioid abuse often brings with it a rise in crime. If we look at the crack crisis of the 1980s and the heroin wave of the 1970s, we can see that during these periods, crime rates rocketed. Both periods were accompanied by major gun violence, including huge numbers of violent property crimes and murders. If you want to find out more about the link between the opioid epidemic in Canada and crime rates, then keep reading below:
What Are Opioids?
Opioids, otherwise known as narcotics, are medications prescribed by health professionals to treat pain. They can be used by people with chronic backache, headaches, by people recovering from an injury or surgery, and by people experiencing the severe pain associated with cancer.
Although opioids can be used to effectively relieve pain, they can also be highly addictive, and they carry several risks. The chances of becoming addicted are particularly high when opioids are used to treat chronic pain over a long period of time.
How Do Opioids Work?
Opioids fundamentally change the way the brain functions. They work by stimulating opioid receptors on nerve cells. When this occurs, the opioids block pain signals sent from the body.
In the past, scientists believed that all opioids – whether taken as a drug or produced by the body – interacted in the same way with opioid receptors. However, recently scientists have found that this is not the case. Scientists now believe that opioid drugs have a different wave of activity. Not only that, but they also interact with the body more rapidly. This may help us to explain why opioid drugs have so many undesirable side effects.
The Side-Effects of Opioids
Some of the most common side-effects of opioids include:
- Mood alterations
There are also several more severe side effects linked to opioid use. Some of these side-effects can be life-threatening. They include:
- Slowed heart rate
- Shallow breathing
- Loss of consciousness
- Jittery nerves
- Addiction – opioids can make your body and brain think that a drug is needed for survival. As your body learns to tolerate the drug, you may find that you need increasing amounts of the drug to relieve the pain or feel the effects. This can lead to addiction. More than 2 million Canadians misuse opioids and more than 90 people die from opioid overdoses each day.
The Different Types of Opioids
There are several different types of opioids including:
- Fentanyl – Fentanyl is one of the most popular drugs used by drug addicts in Canada.
- Heroin – this is an illegal and highly addictive type of opioid. This drug is not authorized for medical use.
Who Can Be Affected by Opioid Addiction?
Anyone can be affected by opiate addiction. However, these groups of people are more likely to suffer from addiction:
- Military personnel
- College-age people
For people who do not have a history of opioid dependence, it is often hard to understand why people would choose to continue taking drugs after suffering side effects or getting into trouble with the law. However, the mind of a person struggling with opioid addiction can be completely different from someone who is not addicted to opioids.
While most people start using opioids for the pain-relieving effects they offer, or the rush of euphoria they give, the body quickly becomes dependent on these drugs. Heroin, for example, is an opioid that with repeated use can turn occasional drug use into an irresistible compulsion.
The Biggest Opioid Epidemic in Canada Today
Today, the biggest opioid issue related to crime is Fentanyl. Although this drug was once authorized by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as a treatment for severe pain, it is now more commonly found in illegal forms.
Before approving any drug, the FDA considers what type of impact it will have on the illegal drug market and how likely a drug is to be used for illegal use. Fentanyl is one of the quickest growing drugs confiscated by law enforcement officials in Canada.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine. Most illegal fentanyl products are produced in China and Mexico. They are then smuggled into Canada and other countries through the mail system, legal ports of entry aboard cars, and overnight delivery services.
Once this illicit drug has entered Canada via drug-traffickers (or by being stolen from registered pharmacies) the drug is usually mixed with additives such as baking soda, quinine, or flour to increase the trafficker’s profits and reduce the potency of the drug. It is then sold to people who have an opioid addiction. In 2017, this drug caused over 28,400 deaths. Click here to find out more about the Fentanyl Crisis in Canada.
Crimes Linked to Illicit Drugs
Opiate withdrawal can be brutal. Although maintaining a drug dependence can be expensive, people often feel like they have no choice but to continue taking opiates. This often leads to people having to commit crimes to fuel their habit. They may end up targeting family members, friends, strangers, or neighbors to afford their habit.
There are several crimes linked to opiate addiction. Most opioid-related offenses include crimes linked to supporting a person’s addiction, such as petty theft, shoplifting, and drug selling to pay for drugs. However, these are not the only crimes being committed by opioid users. Abusing opioids can also prompt people to engage in illicit activities such as trafficking, violent crimes, and prostitution.
Is the Relationship Between Drug Use and Crime One of Cause and Effect?
With studies starting in the 1950s, researchers have shown that there is a reciprocal relationship between crime and drugs. This link is explained in three ways:
- Involvement in criminal activity leads to opioid abuse.
- Opioid abuse pushes a person to commit criminal activity – this may be due to changes in the brain or because of economic necessity.
- Crime and opioid abuse have a common foundation within the individual – they have the same risk factors such as homelessness or antisocial behavior.
Although many people believe that the relationship between drug use and crime is a simple case of cause and effect, this is not always the case. In fact, almost 50% of people interviewed in jails, prisons, and treatment programs, said that they had been arrested before their first opioid use.
Does Criminal Activity Increase After the Onset of Addiction?
Although many people may argue that the criminal behavior seen after the start of addiction is merely a continuation of their criminal lifestyle, evidence suggests that criminal activity does increase rapidly after the onset of opioid addiction.
In fact, research has shown that after the onset of addiction, arrest rates for non-drug-related offenses increase from 1 ½ fold to 3-fold. Not only that, but self-reported property crimes also increase by a similar amount too.
Is Crime a Good Indicator of Opioid Use?
It is believed that crime is a better indicator of opioid use than opioid use is of crime. It has also been suggested that instead of heavy opioid use causing crime, being successful in crime enables the escalation to heavier opioid use.
Crime Rates in Countries Where Opioids are Legal
If we look at some evidence from countries where it is legal and inexpensive to buy opiates, we can see that there is little relationship between opioid use and criminal behavior. The link between crime rates and opioid use occurs mainly in countries such as Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This may be because these countries have tried to limit the use of opioids to genuine medical symptoms but have been unable to stop illegal opioid traffic.
The statistical relationship between the use of opioids and other illicit drugs in Canada is unquestionable. Evidence suggests that people who use opioids commit crimes more frequently than non-users. This may be due to changes in their brain or because of economic necessity. No matter what the reason, opioid abuse is a huge problem in Canada and other countries around the world and this problem is leading to increased crime levels. To reduce opioid-related crime rates in the future, more funding needs to be put in place to support addicts. Not only that, but more initiatives need to be implemented to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions written in Canada.