Carfentanil, a drug 100X more powerful than fentanyl, confirmed in deaths of 2 Albertans
RCMP and public health officials say carfentanil, a deadly drug that is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, has hit Alberta’s streets.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health and chief medical examiner said Friday that two recent deaths, in Edmonton and Calgary, have been linked to carfentanil, an illicit opioid.
Officials said the drug is so strong, an amount equal to a single grain of sand can be lethal.
“Albertans need to know that the drug carfentanil has made its way into our province and that it is an extremely dangerous and deadly opioid,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Karen Grimsrud said.
“The smallest trace of carfentanil can be lethal and Albertans should be aware of the life-threatening dangers in using this drug.”
Earlier this week, carfentanil was detected in the deaths of two men in their 30s. One of the deaths occurred in the Edmonton area; the other in Calgary.
Since such a small amount of the drug can be deadly, toxicology tests had trouble confirming its existence in human blood.
“To my knowledge, there are very few laboratories in North America that are able to measure carfentanil in human blood,” Acting Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Elizabeth Brooks-Lim said. “Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is believed to be the first toxicology laboratory in Canada to positively identify carfentanil in human blood. The discovery of this dangerous drug is concerning to us, and we will continue to work closely with our health partners, as part of sharing information and raising awareness of opioids.”
Carfentanil is an opioid drug licensed for use with large animals but not for humans.
“We are already in the eye of a deadly storm in fighting the horrific impacts of fentanyl in our communities,” RCMP Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan said.
“We are now even more challenged by the arrival of carfentanil on our streets. The primary role of the Alberta RCMP is to stop the flow of these substances and the criminal activities that support them. We will work together with our partners to weather this storm.”
Pressure has been mounting on the Alberta government to declare a public health emergency in response to the opioid crisis.
On Friday, the ministries of health and justice issued statements on the province’s efforts.
“The use of illicit opioids is having a devastating toll in our province,” Brandy Payne, associate minister of health, said. “It is important that we do everything we can to support Albertans affected by addictions.
“We have taken a range of steps to address this crisis, including opening new opioid dependency treatment services, working with physicians on the way opioids are prescribed and stepping up our surveillance tools. But let me be clear: Our work is not done and we will continue to work closely with our partners to ensure we are doing everything to prevent the loss of more lives,” Payne added.
Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley said the carfentanil discover was “deeply concerning” and said the government is working closely with law enforcement partners to “ensure Albertans are aware of the dangers of these deadly opioids.
“We commend the work of our experts inside the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the development of this new test to detect carfentanil. We support our police services to continue their crucial work seizing illicit drugs and using their expertise to share information between jurisdictions.”
Fentanyl’s analogs, or variations, have increased in number and potency over the last year, along with non-fentanyl opioids like W-18 that have emerged, and will continue to grow for the next 12 to 18 months, an RCMP report said.
“While fentanyl continues to pose a high-level threat, the illicit opioid market writ large is evolving at an alarming rate and significantly raising the risk/threat level,” the report, called Fentanyl and Beyond: Evolutions in the Canadian Illicit Opioid Market, said.
Last year, there were 274 fentanyl-related deaths in the province. In 2014, Alberta Health Services reported 120 such deaths and in 2011, there were just six.
The province has expanded access to naloxone, a fentanyl antidote, for various first responders.
Last month, Alberta’s medical regulator said it wants more stringent rules on how physicians prescribe opioid painkillers and other drugs to improve the safety of patients.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons said opioid prescribing by Alberta doctors is among the highest in the country, and that Canada is one of the top three countries in the world for painkiller use.
Some prescription opioids include codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl patches.
The college proposed standards that would would require doctors to prescribe the lowest effective dose to patients who require long-term opioid treatment for chronic pain other than cancer.
Physicians would have to discuss medication decisions with patients including potential serious side effects, other treatment options and the probability of the drug improving their health.
Doctors would also be required to regularly track a patient’s drug treatment history through Alberta’s pharmaceutical information network.
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