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There is a hollow look to the young addicts who wander Woodstock's main street.

Their cheeks are pulled tight, their limbs gaunt, their eyes dull and vacant. They have followed a high to its logical end, and are now trying to scrape themselves back off the bottom.

They gather daily at the bustling methadone clinic across from the city square for their medicine, a narcotic cocktail called "the drink" made palatable by fruit flavouring. In a city of 35,000, 300 people are on the patient rolls.

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"I've lost my whole family pretty much," says Casey, a 25-year-old OxyContin addict. "I'm not your normal street fiend. I've been raised by a good family. My parents both work at Toyota. I was in the interview process to get a job there too, but the drugs were more important so I lost that shot."

This is the unseemly side of Woodstock, a side that has been thrust into public view with the abduction and slaying of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford. The girl's mother, Tara McDonald, confessed to an addiction to OxyContin, and the woman accused in her daughter's homicide, Terri-Lynne McClintic, is also a user, according to neighbours.

Although there's no suggestion that OxyContin contributed to Victoria's killing, the incident has focused public attention on a scourge that is ripping through this blue-collar town - one of many in North America, usually small and suffering economically, where the drug has cut a swath.

Surrounded by some of the most fertile soil in Canada, Woodstock was the hinterland of Upper Canada when it was settled at the turn of the 19th century by Loyalists fleeing the United States. It has always been at the centre of a farm belt, famous for its statue of a prized cow, but from its origins to the present day the "dairy capital" has wagered its own future on manufacturing.

Throughout the 20th century, that strategy helped Woodstock prosper: This was Ontario's heartland, with ready access to rail and roads linking auto parts and machinery destined for Detroit and textiles and furniture for Southern Ontario. In the city's museum, a 1983 promotional film proclaims "industry chooses Woodstock," over a stream of pictures of molten metal and moving machinery.

But while other Southwestern Ontario cities such as Waterloo, Guelph and London have gained from the research hubs of their universities, and from the influx of immigration and creativity that those institutions attract, Woodstock has stuck to what it knows.

As the town's mayor, Michael Harding, said this week, "We've always done good with our hands."

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That approach has created a remarkably stable population, but one less inclined to education. Two-thirds of the town has lived in Canada three generations or more, according to the 2006 census. But just 10 per cent have a university degree and 29 per cent never graduated from high school. Only 4 per cent of its population belong to a visible minority. Compare that with nearby Waterloo, where 31 per cent have a university degree, only 16 per cent didn't graduate from high school, 29 per cent are first-generation Canadians and 17 per cent visible minorities.

"We are what we are," Mr. Harding said. "We're a slow-growth community, always have been."

A number of Woodstock's factories began shutting down in the early part of this century, victims of the broader manufacturing decline. But the city has also enjoyed some of the few recent successes in Ontario industry.

A Hino truck plant opened in 2006 and a Toyota auto plant in 2008, creating 2,000 jobs directly and in related industries, and doubling the city's corporate tax revenue in a single year.

As in any community where labour is more physical than clerical, where an aging population has retired, a tendency to prescribe powerful painkillers for worn-out joints and aching backs has heralded the onset of significant social problems.

OxyContin is the brand name of a time-release-pill formula of oxycodone, a synthetic opioid, whose use has significantly increased over the years, with Canadian pharmacies dispensing more than 1.8 million prescriptions for oxycodone last year. Ontario is the hot spot for the drug, with the highest number of oxycodone doses per capita in 2008.

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"In Woodstock, we have a lot of abuse of OxyContin and to a certain degree some of that may be because of the methadone treatment clinic that's located in Woodstock," said acting Detective Sergeant Greg Fletcher of Oxford Community Police.

The coated pill, which provides 12-hour pain relief, is typically prescribed to chronic pain sufferers such as cancer patients or those with back problems. Some patients treated at the methadone clinic in Woodstock will get a prescription for OxyContin from their doctor, who is unaware that patient is receiving methadone treatment elsewhere, Det. Sgt. Fletcher said. That patient, in turn, will sell the prescription drug among a loose collection of friends and acquaintances. OxyContin touches all groups, he said.

"There are housewives that were injured with a back injury or some other kind of injury and started taking it ... right down to the 15- or 16-year-old kids on the street, who will buy one and take one every day or a couple a day if they can afford it," he said.

Casey and his best friend Ken sit waiting to see a doctor at the methadone clinic, conveniently located near the Pawntario Pawn Shop frequented by many addicts.

Casey proudly explains he never stole to feed his habit, but he certainly scammed. He once stole a prescription pad from a local hospital, which he used to write forged prescriptions for more than two years.

During that time he progressed to what addicts call the dirtiest stage of their craving, when they "bang" the drug by crushing the pill, cooking the powder in a spoon and injecting it in their veins. The high is intense, Casey says, like getting two days of painkilling morphine in an instant, but injecting it also creates dangers of hepatitis and HIV infection, as well as ugly track marks and snapped veins.

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For Casey it began with having his wisdom teeth out. He was given a low dose of oxycodone, which he enjoyed, and then began buying it on the street. Everything went so fast after that, he said. He lost his job as a machinist, his parents kicked him out, his friends abandoned him and all he cared about was getting his next fix.

He says he used to buy from a retired store owner who sold his painkillers at $40 for an 80-milligram pill to supplement his income. He remembers his disgust when, as he bought a pill, the man pointed to a sparkling convertible in the driveway, and said he wanted to thank his young addicts for buying him a $60,000 sports car.

Casey says he can think of 50 dealers who sell OxyContin in Woodstock, and another 20 in nearby Ingersoll, population 11,000.

He estimates a quarter of his contemporaries have been hooked by OxyContin at some point. That's why they refer to Oxford County as OxyCounty, he said.

"In this town I can get OxyContin 10 times easier than crack," he said. "It's not pretty. There's nothing for people to do here but get high."

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OXY ABUSE

Oxycodone is prescribed far more liberally in Canada than it is in Europe, according to Benedikt Fischer, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University.

"Our system dishes out these drugs so easily and so generously that there is just a lot of this stuff around," he said of opioids. Abuse of oxycodone has given rise to break-ins at doctors' offices and pharmacies, as well as double-doctoring, where patients seek the same prescription from multiple physicians.

"A lot of people use them as stress relievers because they make you feel good, they take the pain away," he said.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has struck an opioid-prescribing task force to examine how to reduce risk associated with its non-medical use.

"It's our view that we really want people to be educated in how to use these agents safely and effectively so that people who need them get them," said Dr. Rocco Gerace, the college's registrar. "The last thing we want to do is to create a chill so people are in pain."

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Lisa Priest

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A tale of two cities

While cities such as Waterloo have gained from the presence of a university and the immigration and creativity that those institutions attract, Woodstock has not progressed as quickly, with lower education levels, incomes and rates of population growth. growth.

WOODSTOCK WATERLOO
Population
in 2006 35,480 97,475
in 2001 33,269 86,543
Percentage change '01 to '06 6.6% 12.6%
Median age 39.7 35.4
Income
Median household income in 2005 $55,920 $71,322
Percentage under 18 in low-income bracket* 13.7% 9.7%
Community composition
Total visible-minority population 4% 17%
Percentage who are immigrants 12% 23%
Percentage who are first generation 15% 29%
Educational attainment
No high school certificate or equivalent 29% 16%
University diploma or degree 10% 31%

*Before taxes

RICK CASH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA

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