Ottawa police have confirmed their first case of cocaine laced with fentanyl and are warning the public of the dangers of the potentially fatal opiate, which is increasingly showing up in illegal drugs across the province amid an overdose “public health crisis.”
Police said Friday that Health Canada had confirmed the presence of the painkiller, which legally comes in patch or pill form but can be deadly if mixed with other drugs and ingested.
The analysis took three months to complete, after a sample was given to the federal health ministry by a patrol officer in early July.
Fentanyl is suspected of being mixed with drugs in other parts of the province as well, but due to the length of time needed for testing and toxicology reports front line officers have told Global News they often feel they are a step behind.
In Ontario, statistics on opioid overdose deaths are overseen by the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Office — but that data was last released in 2014. Meaning there is no up-to-date picture of how bad the problem currently is.
The latest available data showed opioid overdose deaths rose to 553 people in Ontario in 2014, while fentanyl-related deaths climbed to 153, according to the coroner.
Global News obtained preliminary data from the chief coroner’s office for 2015, which showed there were 529 opioid overdoses in Ontario last year — 162 of which involved fentanyl.
Ottawa Public Health’s risk reduction program manager said Friday they have seen an increase in the use of the “extremely dangerous” drug in Ottawa, with users reporting they unaware drugs such as cocaine contained fentanyl.
“One overdose is too many, and there is much work that needs to be done,” Pam Oickle said, adding OPH is working with police and other community partners to address the growing problem.
“Substance misuse and addiction does not discriminate – it affects people from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.”
Oickle said the number of ER visits due to overdose and the number of unintentional deaths related to opiate overdose have increased in Ottawa.
Emergency room visits related to unintentional or undetermined drug overdose also increased in Ottawa by 77 per cent in the last six years, with 205 in 2015 alone.
Unintentional overdose deaths due to opiates were also 250 per cent higher from 2009 to 2014, at 23 per year, compared to the five years prior that saw nine per year.
Recently, five people overdosed in Barrie, Ont., earlier this month, after police said they were at a party and used cocaine laced with an opiate suspected to be fentanyl.
“If they weren’t tended to in the short time that they were, it could have been fatal,” Barrie Police Const. Sarah Bamford told Global News on Oct. 3.
“If police were able to receive a toxicology report a bit quicker than what we do, it would definitely help with our investigations.”
Durham Regional Police Sgt. Bill Calder told Global News last week investigators had seen the drug on the streets of Durham Region for at least two years.
Three people were charged with drug trafficking last week after police in Oshawa, Ont., concluded a three-month undercover investigation into the sale of heroin suspected of being laced with fentanyl on Oct. 7.
Ottawa police said the presence of fentanyl in the city means that the increased risk of “unintended overdose” for drug users is growing.
“No amount of supervision can ensure a person’s safety when they choose to use illegal drugs,” police said in a release. “That is even more so when there is no reliable way for the user or the supervisor to confirm what drug is actually being ingested.”
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced Wednesday the province will make the opiate overdose antidote medication Naloxone free of charge going forward to combat the increasing number of overdoses and deaths.
“Naloxone is a life-saving antidote for opioid overdoses that actually reverses the effects of opioids on a person’s body, and can save a person’s life if they are overdosing,” said Hoskins, who called the opiate addiction issue in the province a “public health crisis.”
But Ottawa police said Friday that while they encourage those who may be at risk of an opiate overdose to be trained in the use of Naloxone, it has “limited effectiveness” against high doses of heroin, fentanyl and more powerful opiates such as carfentanil.
“Nowadays, you don’t know because the reason why so many drugs are being laced, or cut with different agents, is because they can create more and these dealers can make more money,” Bamford said.
“And unfortunately that’s being done without taking people’s safety and health into consideration.”
For more information on managing addiction and where to access Naloxone user’s training programs across Canada, police recommend calling the Drug and Alcohol Helpline at 1-800-565-8603.