A drug prescribed as a painkiller for patients suffering terminal illnesses such as cancer and considered 100 times more potent than morphine is ending up on local streets, public health and local police confirm.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, is increasingly being sold on Canadian streets, often to unwitting customers who are unaware of the drug’s dangers and may even think they are ingesting other drugs such as OxyContin.
Ontario community groups and police worry that the rise in fentanyl use will result in a crisis in Ontario as the drug that's responsible for hundreds of overdose deaths spreads east from British Columbia.
B.C. public health officials have declared a public health emergency following the overdoses of hundreds there.
Woodstock police say they are seeing fentanyl on local streets, but not in the most potent form often smuggled from China that has been found in cities like Winnipeg and Hamilton.
“What we are seeing is patches that are being cut up and sold,” said Woodstock police spokesperson Const. Nikki VanLeeuwen.
The local force recently implemented a training program for its 50-plus officers, as well as implementing a new policy to deal with handling fentanyl or any powdered substance. In addition, every cruiser is outfitted with hazardous materials kit.
“If we find something liquid or powdered fentanyl or a powdered substance, we use high grade masks and double gloves,” VanLeeuwen said.
The materials are then stored inside a sealed bottle and then sealed again inside an evidence container, to be submitted for testing by a forensic officer.
“It’s so potent that it can be absorbed through skin, so we’re taking extra precautions,” she said.
Public health nurse Lisa Gillespie, who oversees the Take Home Naloxone program, confirms that fentanyl, sometimes disguised as OxyContin, is being used by local residents.
“Anecdotally we are definitely hearing that it is here,” she said. “It’s all around us as well. We are hearing stories from Norfolk and London.”
Counterfeit Oxys made from fentanyl often have a rougher coating than the real thing, and have a green centre rather than white.
Gillespie said she has heard stories of people testing positive for fentanyl without even knowing they had ingested it.
While recent data is not available regarding local overdoses, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse says there were more than 1,000 drug poisoning deaths in Canada involving fentanyl between 2009 and 2014 and according to Ontario’s chief coroner, between 2005-09, 210 people in Ontario died at least in part as a result of fentanyl overdoses..
Their findings also show that fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of opioid deaths in Ontario, killing 174 people in 2014 and rising 28 per cent from the year before.
There were a total of 663 opioid overdose deaths in 2014.
One way to prevent death from fentanyl and other opioids is by accessing the life-saving drug Naloxone.
Free kits and training are available locally in Woodstock at Clinic 461 at 461 Dundas St., All About Health Remedy’s RX, 360 Norwich Ave. and Access Care Pharmacy located at 35 Metcalfe St.