Street drugs seized by Ontario police have tested positive for carfentanil for the first time and experts are warning the potentially fatal opioid could contribute to more overdose deaths across the province.
Waterloo Regional Police seized a number of green pills they said were manufactured to resemble OxyContin late last month, in connection with two overdoses in Cambridge and Kitchener, Ont.
Samples of the pills were sent to Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service for testing and officials confirmed to Global News Tuesday it was the first time drugs submitted by Ontario police tested positive for carfentanil, which is 100 times more toxic than fentanyl and 10,000 times more toxic than morphine.
“Obviously the wave of fentanyl has been moving into Ontario from Western Canada,” Waterloo Police Chief Brian Larkin told Global News Tuesday.
“This is a significant public health issue, not only in the region of Waterloo but coming to the province of Ontario and it’s time for immediate action.”
The Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy issued an overdose alert Monday night after confirming with Health Canada the drug had been discovered in Ontario.
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“There should be no surprise that the bootleg fentanyls have landed in Ontario and no surprise that carfentanil has arrived,” said Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.
“We know that Ontario is not an island and we are not immune from what’s happening in our neighbouring provinces and U.S. states.”
Just 20 micrograms of carfentanil, the equivalent of a single grain of salt, could potentially be fatal. Parkinson said the drug is not intended for human consumption — but is instead used to sedate large animals such as elephants.
Dr. David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said that tiny dose “could kill even a seasoned opioid user.”
“If you’re taking a tablet with several grains of salt worth of carfentanil in it, I think death is a virtual certainty,” he told Global News.
“I think the biggest worry with carfentanil is that people who are using opioids don’t realize they’re getting it.”
Juurlink said drug users might think they’re buying OxyContin or heroin, but could actually be getting a drug laced with carfentanil and are “quite likely to die” unless they have immediate access to medical attention.
“We had many years to prepare for this moment but what concerns many across Ontario is the tepid response from senior orders of government and agencies,” Parkinson said. “And it’s particularly concerning when you have weapons-grade opioids like carfentanil floating around in your community.”
“We know from Ohio and from experiences in Winnipeg, Alberta and British Columbia that carefentanil is a deadly killer, that people consuming it will be unaware of its presence and it has all the potential to overwhelm communities, first responders and hospital emergency departments.”
Police said the pills are not manufactured in controlled laboratory conditions, so it would be impossible for a drug user to determine if the doses were fatal.
The pills are imprinted with a “CDN” on one side and an “80” on the reverse and investigators said similar tablets had been seized in Western Canada that had contained fentanyl, which sparked the decision by Waterloo police to test the samples.
“One of the challenges of carfentanil and fentanyl is that it can’t be detected by sight, smell or taste. We don’t have the drug kits that provide the testing and frankly it’s not safe for us to test,” Larkin said, adding that even drug traffickers were warning drug users of the potency of the drug.
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“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this. We need a larger public health strategy to manage opioid substance abuse, detox and rehabilitation treatment.”
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced a new provincial opioid strategy in October to combat the increasing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths.
“One of the challenges, I think in policing as well, is that we don’t really have a good handle, and didn’t have a good handle, on the magnitude of the problem,” Larkin said
He added since October, police in Waterloo Region have seen an increase in “bootleg fentanyl” — something that is not addressed in the provincial opioid strategy.
“I’m confident that moving forward we’ll see a much larger, broader strategy … We do have to exercise some patience. That being said, there’s a sense of urgency around some immediate changes that are required.”
Larkin said the fact that the Chief Coroner for Ontario joined the Ontario Chiefs of Police last week at a training symposium for more than 450 officers on the dangers of fentanyl, signalled a “directional change” in the province on the issue.
“I think we’re getting a better handle on it, I think we’re getting a better understanding and obviously detecting carfentanil in Ontario again in my view is another game changer,” he said.
“It’s a reminder to all of us that we have a significant challenge ahead of us and we can’t sit on our hands and we can’t sit and rest on our laurels — we’ve got to go into action mode and we need to ensure that because the reality is that this is about public lives.”
“There are people who are dying, there are people that are facing significant health issues through overdoses and we need to take action.”