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The Canadian Prison System Is Keeping Prisoners Doped Up on Methadone

Orange Is the New Black is providing lazy Netflix watchers all over the place with an opportunity to escape into the lives of prisoners, but however fashionable prison entertainment may be, the truth is that Canada’s prison system, on all levels...
September 6, 2013, 11:00am

The methadone structure. via WikiCommons.

“Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy then gives them the drugs to take away their unhappiness. Science fiction is already happening to some extent in our own society.”
Theodore Kaczynski

Orange Is the New Black is providing lazy Netflix watchers all over the place with an opportunity to escape into the lives of prisoners, but however fashionable prison entertainment may be, the truth is that Canada’s prison system, on all levels, is pretty fucked up right now. When you look at stories of cost cutting, population growth, and the rise of inmates suffering from mental health issues, it’s hard not to shudder at what else might be going on behind bars.


Drugs, in one form or another, have always been present within the prison system, and the failed war on drugs has only made the problem worse. In the last few years, however, one drug in particular has been sounding alarm bells for prison staff: methadone.

Methadone is a synthetic-opioid similar to heroin, and is often referred to as 'liquid-cuffs' because the habit is so hard to kick. It comes in a liquid form, and is often mixed with Tang of all things. The drug is used to treat opioid addiction, but many users will end up being hooked on methadone itself for the rest of their lives.

I spoke with two nurses who have been working in a maximum-security prison in Ontario for nearly 25 years, who told me the number of inmates hooked on methadone is escalating at an alarming rate, which in turn is perpetuating the problem of addiction and drug abuse in Canada's prisons.

Both nurses—Helen and Lydia—said that what’s happening has become an epidemic of negligence and doctor oversight, as methadone is being used as a Band-Aid solution to silence a much bigger problem.

“I’ve honestly never seen anything like this. The prison smells like methadone. We’ve had to open a separate area just for administering it,” said Helen.

According to Helen and Lydia, a decade ago methadone users represented 1 percent of the prison population; now over 20 percent of inmates are addicted on the stuff.

“This is no way to treat addiction, especially in young people. It’s very disturbing to watch. These young guys are becoming further imprisoned into a life of being on methadone.”


It seems pretty backward that people are going to prison and ending up in worse shape—mentally and health-wise—than when they entered. As a result, it’s hard to see the rehabilitative value in pumping prisoners full of methadone, when at the end of the day, it's just another narcotic getting passed around from cell to cell.

Kingston Pen. via

“Inmates are being fed this drug who were already addicts. They have problems, and those problems aren’t actually being dealt with. They’re just on more drugs,” said Helen.

More people are recognizing addiction as a serious mental health issue, rather than some sort of conscious act of defiance. Becoming an addict is not a choice people willingly make. While there is obviously a large percentage of the population who can try any drug a couple times without turning into a full-blown fiend, that’s not true for many others.

“Now it seems like there are no rules; anyone can get on [methadone]. This honestly seems just like the tobacco companies—hook them while they’re young and they will never get off,” said Lydia.

The rampant prescribing of methadone in prisons has also led certain medical professionals to realize there’s money to be made in the business of pumping people full of synthetic dope. Doctors can bill for a lot of extras, such as urine tests, administering the drugs, and daily patient visits. As Helen told me, “Doctors and pharmacists outside prison are making money hand over fist with this stuff too, because they can see so many patients a day.”


She continued, “Our methadone doctor is also our family physician. We had a psychiatrist here who dropped that job to open a methadone clinic full-time, because it was so lucrative. It’s hard to watch. It’s the easy solution, but it should be a crime."

Because methadone is so addictive that patients require constant monitoring, a methadone user will end up having a unique relationship with their doctor. In early treatment, patients will need to visit a pharmacist and check-in with their doctors daily. This has led to some questionable doctoral practices, and is one reason why both Helen and Lydia think the program is more a crime than actual therapy.

Eventually, as a methadone user, your doctor should start to decrease your dose, which could range anywhere from 2 milligrams to 100 milligrams or higher. But what’s happening in prison is that often dosages remain stagnant or are increasing in size. It’s very difficult to monitor this program properly in prison, due to the lack of staff and doctors.

The conditions for remaining on the program in prison have also changed, seemingly for the worse.

“It used to be that if you peed dirty too many times, it was clear the program wasn’t working and you would be taken off of it. Now, these guys are constantly coming up with dirty urine tests. It got so bad we actually had to start a ‘dirty program,’ they don’t even try to hide it anymore.”


Inmates who try to get off the program are realizing how hard it is to quit.

“We have guys literally screaming for it if they haven’t got their drink on time, or didn’t get enough. I saw someone try to drink his own urine thinking there [would be more methadone] in there.”

Both nurses have seen pregnant women come in demanding more for their babies. On one occasion Helen said a woman came in who was “losing her mind,” screaming, “my baby wants more, my baby wants more!” In the end, she had to give it to her.

“I honestly believe it’s one of those things where there were a lot of really good intentions to begin with, but it turned out bad. I know there are people who truly and absolutely believe in this program, but they don’t realize or understand the mentality of drug addiction, or the subculture of the prison system.”

It’s unfortunate to be living in a culture that treats drug addiction with more drugs. Prisoners already have serious issues—especially younger, drug-addicted inmates, and clearly this methadone free-for-all isn't helping. The Canadian prison system should be working to rehabilitate and free people, not push them further into a downward spiral. While a prison full of sedated individuals might be easier to police, the ramifications of cycling addicts from cells to society cannot lead anywhere positive.

As Helen put it, “Handing over a bottle of methadone is not going to fix any problem.”

More about drugs and prisons:

The VICE Guide to Rehab

Prison Guards See Some Crazy Shit

Meth Addicts Keep Setting Themselves on Fire