05/12/2012 07:31 EDT | Updated 07/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Tori Stafford's hometown struggles with drug reputation

The picturesque Ontario town that Victoria (Tori) Stafford called home is still coming to terms with being labelled as a problem area for prescription drug abuse more than three years after the eight-year-old girl disappeared outside her elementary school and was murdered.

Tori’s mother, Tara McDonald, has admitted to taking the painkiller Oxycontin on Apr. 8, 2009, the day her daughter went missing in Woodstock, Ont. McDonald also says she had twice previously encountered Terri-Lynn McClintic, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in her daughter's death.

McDonald said one of those meetings occurred when she went with her partner James Goris to the home of McClintic’s mother to buy OxyContin, a powerful painkiller that produces a heroin-like euphoria when crushed, then inhaled or injected.

Revelations like that, coupled with the intense scrutiny on the legal proceedings involving McClintic and her co-accused Michael Rafferty — convicted Friday of first-degree murder in the case — have many in the town and surrounding Oxford County feeling like they’ve been tagged as trouble spot for drug abuse. But that may not necessarily be the case.

"I think per capita it's probably not that much different [in Oxford County] than just about anywhere else," said Bill Baleka, the director of The Cynthia Anne Centre for Addiction in Woodstock.

Rob Parsons, the pharmacist and owner of a Pharmasave outlet in nearby Ingersoll, agrees.

“I've worked in a number of towns between London and Longlac. I can tell you that in pharmacies across Ontario there are a lot of pain medications — or at least have been in the past — prescribed and dispensed,” he said.

“I can't honestly say that I think it’s any higher in Oxford County compared to any other places that I’ve worked.”

According to a 2008 report by the public health body the Oxford County Drug Task Force, which Parsons has worked with, there is “no indication that youth in Oxford County abuse substances to any greater degree than their counterparts in other parts of the province."

Unique risk factors

However, the report notes that there are some factors that up the risk for substance abuse in Oxford County and exacerbate the effects of misuse.

“The lack of transportation and suitable, stable, housing, a weak sense of belonging, increased number of early school leavers and the rural nature of the county contribute to increased risk of substance abuse.”

That assertion seems to be backed up by two visitors to Parson’s pharmacy, 25-year-olds Matt Straw and Seana Harvey, who first starting using prescription drugs in their teens.

Harvey came to the pharmacy to get methadone, which she is using to wean herself off OxyContin.

"There's nothing to do in this town for us kids, except for doing the drugs,” she said.

“[OxyContin] just made me feel numb and away from everybody. I was depressed. It just made me feel more alive …it felt like more people would listen to me.”

Both Harvey and Straw, the parents of 13-month-old twins, said the drug has had an incredibly damaging effect on their lives.

“You lose friends. I've buried now two friends. I was stabbed when I was 17,” said Straw

New drug still being abused

When it was first introduced in 1995, OxyContin was heavily marketed to doctors who were assured it was safe and non-addictive. They began prescribing it to treat moderate to severe pain, typically in people suffering from osteoarthritis, back and neck problems, as well as palliative patients and those recovering from cancer surgery.

However, the addition of long-acting oxycodone — the form contained in OxyContin — to Ontario's drug plan in 2000 coincided with a spike in opioid-related deaths and a corresponding jump in abuse.

The company that manufactures OxyContin is now no longer manufacturing the drug.

Purdue Pharma Canada has replaced OxyContin with a new formulation called OxyNEO, which it says is harder to tamper with.

But both Parsons and Straw say that hasn’t deterred users, who have found ways to tamper with it so it can be abused. And the damage caused by OxyNEO can potentially be worse, because it breaks down differently than OxyContin, which then could result in an overdose, said Parsons.

Straw and Harvey, meanwhile, said they are quitting OxyContin for the sake of their young boy and girl.

But while they are on the road to recovery, they know others are just getting started.

“You see younger kids getting into it and older kids getting out. That's the next generation,” said Straw.