New statistics show an increase of more than 40 per cent in the number of street drugs testing positive for fentanyl across the country this year compared to last, and experts are warning there has never been a more dangerous time to be a drug user in Canada.
Global News obtained data from Health Canada that shows fentanyl was found in 2,503 drug samples submitted by Canadian law enforcement agencies so far in 2016, a 43 per cent increase from the 1,749 drug samples submitted in all of 2015.
“2016 is like no other year in Canadian drug history and there’s no turning back,” said Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist with the Waterloo Regional Crime Prevention Council in Ontario.
“It’s probably never been a more dangerous time in Canadian history to be using illicit substances.”
The opioid “public health crisis” has spread across the country touching almost every province, with several provincial health agencies rushing to implement new measures to battle the deadly drug.
British Columbia saw the most dramatic rise, with an almost 100 per cent increase in the total number of drug samples testing positive for fentanyl, growing from 604 in 2015 to 1,194 so far this year.
“Certainly the introduction of illicit, powdered fentanyl into the opioid-using community has led to a likely increase in overdose,” said Rob Boyd, director of the Ottawa drug treatment program Oasis.
“But it being found in drugs other than opioids is concerning because people are not prepared, it’s not on their radar that this is a risk that can happen — plus they have a very low tolerance to the drug in the first place.”
B.C’s top public health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, declared a state of emergency in April after data showed the province was grappling with a massive increase in overdose deaths. Premier Christy Clark announced a joint task force to tackle the problem she called “alarming and frightening” in July, after data showed there had been a 74 per cent increase in fentanyl deaths.
Ontario has also seen a dramatic 35 per cent spike in the number of drugs testing positive for fentanyl this year compared to last year, according to Health Canada, with 609 samples testing positive for the drug to date in 2016 up from 450 last year.
VIDEO: Experts warn of growing fentanyl crisis across Canada
On Oct. 12, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced a new opioid strategy in the province to combat the increasing number of overdoses and deaths. The plan includes offering the opiate overdose medication Naloxone free of charge going forward.
“Until now it’s been quite weak in terms of the [government] response and there doesn’t seem to be a recognition of the scope and scale of the problem,” Boyd said.
“I think that there’s now a will on the part of the Ontario government and the federal government to scale up what’s happening.”
Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service (DAS) analyzes more than 110,000 samples of illegal drugs seized by police across Canada each year.
Between April 1, 2015 and March 31 of this year, the most common street drug samples containing fentanyl were found in heroin, at 21.6 per cent, cocaine at 4.8 per cent, and methamphetamine at 1.7 per cent.
“We have now got a situation where people are using opioids for which they don’t know the potency or purity and frankly sometimes don’t even know what is in these drugs and that is a much, much more dangerous situation,” said Dr. Daniel Werb, a research scientist with St. Michael’s Hospital and director of the Toronto-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.
“It is an exceptionally dangerous time to use drugs, because of illicit fentanyl and carfentanil, an incredibly potent opioid, which can result in overdose death.”
A Health Canada spokeswoman said drugs analyzed by the DAS likely represent a “subset” of those seized by law enforcement agencies, which would in turn speak to a larger number of drugs available on the black market.
Werb said the fact that fentanyl is showing up on Canadian streets is due to a “major failing” on the part of the Canadian government that began years ago with the widespread prescription of opioids such as Oxycontin and Percocet and the “mischaracterization” of their addictive potential.
“The issue that I have is that in response to what was a public health crisis surrounding over-prescription and addiction to OxyContin, which did lead to some overdose deaths, is that the government has responded by effectively trying to throttle the supply,” he said.
“That has resulted in the illicit market filling the vacuum. If you remove the supply of a drug, but you still have a population of people who are dependent on that class of drug the illegal market is going to fill that void.”
Parkinson said his organization issued a fentanyl advisory three and a half years ago and the situation has unfolded essentially as predicted.
“We spent 15 years subsidizing billions of dollars worth of pharmaceutical opioids to Canadians and we’ve absolutely created the perfect conditions for a robust black market and the black market is not self-regulating, there is no Better Business Bureau to complain to,” Parkinson said.
“It’s never been less safe to do drugs in Canada. It’s scary and we know it’s not just people who are using daily who are at risk, it’s people who are using occasionally.
“The one line of cocaine you did could be the one that kills you.”
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.