Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Like many opioids, the drug, with many variations of potency, has reached far beyond the boundaries of medical prescriptions.
Unfortunately for students and the Kitchener-Waterloo community, these boundaries are unknown — potentially leading to a spike in overdose deaths and seizures throughout the K-W region.
“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It’s originally for pharmaceutical usage such as pain or anesthetic,” explained Detective Ian Young with the drug and firearm branch of the Waterloo Regional Police.
Targeting opioid receptors in the brain that also control one’s breathing rate, high dosages can halt breathing completely, leading to sudden, uncontrollable death.
Young went on to explain the rapid acceleration of drug overdose in the last two years within the region.
“In 2015 we had 12 drug related seizures. In 2016, we were up to 67.”
There is no direct indication of whether or not these incidents were a result of fentanyl overdose, but detections throughout the city suggest that the drug may play a role in the rise.
“There’s been an increase across Canada with the usage [of fentanyls] and the availability of it,” explained Young.
“It’s a pretty cheap drug to purchase. It creates some rather large profit margins for dealers.”
Originally used as a solution to treat patients with severe pain, Young explained that highly toxic dosages could be laced in illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, crystal methamphetamine, or crushed pills such as MDMA — being added without consumer knowledge.
While students may think that they are not at risk of accidentally ingesting fentanyl, MDMA and cocaine are common amongst the student population. It’s not just daily drug users that are at risk of fatal overdose; recreational party drugs can have traces too.
The ultimate problem is that users are left completely unaware of the dangers of their consumption.
“We’re an enforcement agency, so we’re focusing on trafficking and enforcing the drug laws,” Young said.
“As well, we are trying to take a role in educating and communicating with our other community partners.”
One of these partners is Michael Parkinson, the coordinator for Community Engagement, who has taken a major role in combating the consequences of fentanyl and other laced opioids in the K-W region.
“It was quiet for a while and then it really started to pick up again in March of 2015,” Parkinson explained.
Parkinson mentioned that 2016 had been a record-breaking year for the detection of fentanyl victims.
“People who are using [illicit drugs] daily or occasionally are at risk of an accidental overdose. This is a serious threat to public health and safety,” he said.
“Up until recently, there hasn’t been any monitoring or response in place for bootleg fentanyls. That’s starting to change.”
According to Parkinson, a regional advisory was issued this past August, with the focus of community awareness, education, monitoring of incident detection, law-enforcement of drug distribution, along with implementing steps of emergency precaution.
“Preliminary data shows that the detection of bootleg fentanyls in seizures [with records] submitted to Health Canada has gone up to 575 per cent over those in 2015,” Parkinson said.
“As of October, those detections were up more than 40 per cent right across the province.”
Communities throughout Ontario are struggling to react to bootleg fentanyls, with the drug’s rapid rise having detrimental effects on civilians.
“This all really represents a crisis within a crisis,” explained Parkinson.
“Overdoses in Ontario were a problem but less of an issue before early 2000. Following the addition of oxycodone, we started to see a rise in opioid overdoses. This got to the point where in 2015, one person died in Ontario every 13 hours because of an opioid related overdose.”
So let’s review some statistics: According to preliminary data, we know that in 2015 there were 1063 drug related overdoses in Ontario. Of those 1063 incidents, opioid related overdoses were at 707. Fentanyl, which is a type of opioid, was detected in 203 of those victims across Ontario.
According to Parkinson, fentanyls are just one problem in a growing colossus of drug distribution complications.
But what caused this rise? What is the motive behind lacing illicit drugs with an opioid so dangerous in high dosages? I mean, if I were a dealer, I’m not so sure I’d see the financial benefit in killing my customers.
Parkinson went on to explain that there is an underlying market value for many people who are previously addicted to opioid use. Some addiction can initially derive from medical prescriptions.
“You get into a car accident, you’re given opioids. And like anyone, you become dependent on those opioids. We’ve seen patients who’ve been put on prescriptions of opioids for months, and sometimes years. That gives you a ready-made market.”
In other words, those that are already addicted to the drug will be more inclined to pay the extra buck.
But let’s look a hundred years into our past to consider another pharmaceutical aid that eventually joined the dark side of addiction and bodily detriment: heroin.
Yep, history tends to repeat itself.
As Parkinson explained, pharmaceutical companies do not often consider the potential consequences of their synthesized products beyond the control of prescriptions.
“Oxycodone, for instance, was introduced by a pharmaceutical company. It was approved by regulators. It was subsidized by governments and their drug benefit plans. It was prescribed by doctors. It was dispensed by pharmacists. What could’ve gone wrong?”
But dealers aren’t only trying to capitalize on addiction and the pharmaceutical accessibility of the drug.
“From a dealing point of view, many of them are under the impression that they could increase the potency of their drugs with the inclusion of fentanyls,” Parkinson explained.
“The problem is, because the fentanyls are so toxic at such miniscule amounts, with harmful dosages ranging from 20 micrograms to two milligrams, the way they are applied is really quite amateur. Those labs are what is killing people.”
Parkinson explained that these makeshift resolutions, where laziness overpowers precision, is a thoughtless result of dealers hoping to make a quick buck. The lack of care for what producers have been mixing has become detrimental to the lives of countless people.
So what’s being done about it?
Waterloo Region Integrated Drugs Strategy (WRIDS) is a collaboration of a number of different agencies and organizations across Waterloo region. The work is really focused on four different areas, which are prevention, harm reduction, rehabilitation and recovery, and justice and enforcement. Those are the four areas that the strategy works on.
Lindsay Sprague, the coordinator of WRIDS, explained that there are different committees that fall under the four categories.
“Our prevention committee has been working on compiling and summarizing some of the new resources for youth and the community.”
These specific resources can be found on the WRIDS website.
“Our harm reduction committee is chaired by the Region of Waterloo Public Health,” Sprague explained.
“Rehabilitation and recovery focuses on how can we bring a rapid access clinic to the Waterloo Region. A rapid access clinic is a medical service where an addiction physician becomes partners with a counselor that helps by seeing individuals with substance abuse issues in a more timely way — whether within seven days of referrals, or in a walk in basis when the clinic is open.”
The final committee falls under justice enforcement. As Detective Young explained, their primary focus is on drug law enforcement, distribution prevention and criminal apprehension. But they also play a big role in helping to educate the community.
“The partnership with them focuses on how justice and enforcement can create opportunities for us to provide better support for people who are using substances,” explained Sprague.
One of the larger projects that the organization is looking at implementing is the re-launch of their Overdose Monitoring Alert and Response System, which helps gain a better understanding of how many overdoses are happening in Waterloo Region through online reports and gathered data.
It is clear that responsive measurements have been taken with the dangers of drug overdose and fentanyl distribution growing throughout Waterloo, Ontario and Canada, however, only so much can be done. Countless community members of different socioeconomic status are at risk; students remain uninformed.
For now, the best resource of prevention is staying far away from illicit drugs. But if that’s not an option for you, please remain informed and ready to access community resources if need be.
It’s essential that we remain aware; you never know what could be right under your nose.