Calls for more action to fight Quebec’s fentanyl crisis during coronavirus pandemic

Harm reduction advocates claim the coronavirus pandemic has caused a surge in drug overdoses in Montreal
WATCH: The cause of a surge in overdoses is believed to be due to a shortage and tainting of the drug supply on the streets of Montreal. The leader of the city's largest safe injection site claims Quebec's data on opioid deaths doesn't represent reality. Global's Anne Leclair reports.

The father of a 19-year old St-Lazare man who died on June 29, 2019 after taking a deadly dose of Fentanyl in a bar on St-Laurent Boulevard waited nine months to receive his son’s autopsy results.

He deplores the delay and urges drug users to protect themselves by testing their supply and carrying an antidote, such as naloxone or narcan.

“It was difficult waiting nine months to get the coroner’s report knowing that that would have an effect on the statistics for the year,” said Rob MacIssac, father of 19-year-old Archie MacIsaac-Vacon.

“How responsive can we be to a crisis like this if we don’t have numbers until so long after the fact? That was the frustrating part for me.”

The coroner’s report, dated April 8, 2020 and signed by coroner Gehane Kamel, confirms what the family suspected all along.

Story continues below advertisement

It notes the presence of a “toxic level” of fentanyl detected in his blood along with the presence of alcohol.

“Two empty baggies were found onsite in his wallet, one empty and one full,” reads the report, noting that the subsequent analysis by a Health Canada laboratory revealed the baggy contained fentanyl.

Read more: Montreal police help dismantle purple fentanyl distribution network

According to Quebec’s public health institute, fentanyl was detected in 11 per cent of deaths caused by an opioid overdose between January 2019 and March 2020, which amounts to 49 out of 453 deaths. In reality, the numbers are much higher according to the leader of one harm reduction agency.

“Usually it takes between 12 and 18 months for a coroner’s report,” said Jean-Francois Mary, executive director of Cactus Montreal, the largest safe injection site in the city.

“So we are unable to do what they do in British Columbia and have a very detailed report of the overdoses and very timely report on overdoses.”

Mary worries a recent surge in drug overdoses since May will go unnoticed and untreated if the data doesn’t reflect the reality. He’s calling on Quebec to increase funding for coroners in order to have more complete and timely autopsy results.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: Grieving Quebec family calls for more action in fighting fentanyl crisis

“If we had a properly-funded coroner, we would be much more reactive on the deaths that we have now and we would have a portrait of the people who have died in previous years which we don’t have,” said Mary, adding that it’s more important now that ever to have accurate and timely data.

He claims the coronavirus pandemic has caused a drug shortage and tainting of the supply which could explain the recent surge in accidental overdoses.

“We receive about 200 people a day at Cactus Montreal and people report to us numerous overdoses,” said Mary. “Fentanyl is present in most of the heroin supply in Montreal right now.”

Quebec pharmacies handed out at least 13,600 naloxone kits in 2019, a large increase compared to the 7,500 kits handed out by pharmacists in 2018. Still, Quebec is not doing as much as other provinces, according to Mary.

“If you look at Ontario, the number of distribution of naloxone is on another scale today. We’re not up to date,” he said.

Quebec pharmacists to carry fentanyl antidote
Quebec pharmacists to carry fentanyl antidote

Archie MacIsaac’s family is encouraged to hear distribution of naloxone is up.

Story continues below advertisement

“The more naloxone kits that are out there in the community the better,” said Rob MacIsaac. “I mean, if someone had had some on them when Archie took his fatal dose, we might’ve had a very different outcome.”

The grieving father is also urging drug users to equip themselves with testing kits to find out what’s in their drug supply, before it’s too late.

“It’s especially difficult this year because with social isolation more people are spending more time alone which makes people even more vulnerable because if something happens you don’t have a buddy nearby that can administer the (antidote),” MacIsaac said.