‘Ottawa’ ‘These Percs have Destroyed Kanata’: Teen Talks about Deadly Counterfeit Drugs
Cole Nicholls reaches down and picks up a pebble on the carpet when asked the question: Why are counterfeit pharmaceuticals so dangerous?
Many parents in Ottawa are looking for the answer to that question after a 14-year-old Kanata girl, Chloe Kotval, died on Feb. 14. Her family has called on police and public officials to address the availability of “high grade counterfeit pharmaceuticals,” illicit drugs masquerading as prescription drugs.
In Kanata, counterfeit pills mean “Percs” — pills laced with the potent opioid fentanyl.
“Half of this, if it were fentanyl, would be enough to kill you,” says Nicholls, balancing the tiny pebble on his forefinger.
Nicholls is only 17, but says he used pills laced with opioids for about six months. Now clean, he fears the lure of the powerfully addictive opioid is unstoppable.
“You try the pill. It’s wicked,” he said. “It’s your party drug. Then you want to do it every day. And then it turns into a big group of people doing it.”
Nicholls knew the drugs were potentially lethal. That didn’t matter to him.
“‘The high is worth the risk.’ That’s what people think. They think it’s not going to happen to them.”
At one time or another, Nicholl said he and all of his friends have overdosed. “If you have a party, there’s maybe 15 people. It’s guaranteed that one of them will overdose.”
Users will often consume 10 tablets a day, most often crushing them into powder form and snorting them or smoking them sprinkled in tobacco or marijuana. They sometimes gather in a semi-public place such as the washroom of a fast-food restaurant or shopping mall to snort crushed tablets. (Warning to parents of babies: This is sometimes done on the change table in a public washroom. Opioids can be absorbed through the skin.)
Nicholls says it was easy to acquire Percs about three-quarters of the time — they came from Toronto and Montreal and were distributed among teens by their own peers.
Until recently, tablets cost about $3.50 each when bought in bulk, but could be resold as singles for about $5. Prices have recently jumped to about $10 a tablet. After police shut down an operation, it can take several weeks for another source to move into the market, he says.
Nicholls has seen friends so desperate for more of the drug that they will be on the floor, searching for tiny fragments that may have fallen.
He quit two months ago. Withdrawal took several weeks and it was painful, he says. “It’s the worst. You want to sleep all day. You feel like garbage. You get depressed. In about a month, you’re feeling better.”
Tall, lanky and affable, Nicholls left home at 14, spent time couch-surfing. He quit school and is now working to get his life together. He says he’s not going back to using Percs. He hopes to work in construction this summer and wants eventually to attend college.
His girlfriend still uses Percs. Nicholls wants it to stop. He now avoids his old circle of friends. “If you’re hanging with people doing Percs, you can’t stay stay away from it,” he says.
“These Percs have destroyed Kanata. I used to have so many friends. I tried to help. It just didn’t work. I can’t let them kill themselves. I can’t let my girlfriend kill herself in the process.”
Police are investigating the death of Kotval and another Kanata teen, 18, who has not been named. The Ottawa police drug unit, which investigates drug trafficking and distribution, is also trying to determine the source of the drugs Kotval was using.
Sean O’Leary, a Kanata father, raised the alarm about the prevalence of counterfeit drugs in Kanata last weekend. In an emotional open letter, O’Leary outlined the shock and terror he felt when he found a 17-year-old boy overdosed in his garage on New Year’s Eve. The boy was revived with CPR and the assistance of paramedics.
“When I was a kid, everyone did drugs. But they didn’t kill you,” says O’Leary, who met Nicholls when he found him sleeping in his backyard shed, then offered him a job working in his furniture store.
O’Leary has since gone public with the trials of getting addictions treatment for his daughter. He says hundreds of parents have reached out to him since he posted his letter. He still keeps a wary eye over his daughter and won’t let his younger children check on her in the morning, for fear she has died overnight.
“I’m hoping that people are checking their kids at night in bed.”
Nicholls says he doesn’t believe that public health messages warning teens about the dangers of opioids are going to work. Police raids will disrupt the supply pipeline only for short periods of time. He would like to see all schools have naloxone, the opioid “antidote” available in case of overdoses.
Those who sell the drugs don’t care that the pills can be lethal, he says. If one customer dies, there will be two more ready to buy.
“I really hope things change. But this crisis just got started. I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
Percs, perkies or blues: Percocet tablets, often counterfeit. Prescription Percocet, used for pain relief, contains a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone. Counterfeit tablets may contain other opioids such as fentanyl in unreliable and even deadly combinations. Last week, 12 people were arrested in Ottawa in connection with the trafficking of counterfeit tablets containing fentanyl.
Percopop: Fentanyl-laced lollipop.
Perking: Feeling good under the influence of Percs.
Popping: Smoking crushed tablets, usually with tobacco or marijuana.
Strikeout: Using powdered Perc, marijuana or tobacco and alcohol in quick succession to augment the high.
The nod: A user who appears drowsy or sleepy as the result of consuming a product that contains opioids. This is dangerous as the user can slip into a overdose and stop breathing if there is no one else present to initiate CPR or administer naloxone.