Unpredictable and easily accessible, opioids such as fentanyl, have left their mark on Red Deer, killing 25 people in the last two years, according to Alberta Health.
Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, Turning Point executive director, said the unpredictability of the drugs being used has helped make them fatal.
For example, a user would purchase five pills and use the first pill to test the potency of the rest of the pills, said Vanderschaeghe.
But now, with a stronger opioid going into the drugs, it’s difficult to gauge the effects a dose will have.
“It’s so strong and not pharmaceutically made, so the batches have strong and weak spots within each pill,” said Vanderschaeghe. “You can’t predict any of the content. The reality is this business is profited by money and not by health.
“The reality is nobody knows what they’re using.”
Sgt. Eric McKenzie, Red Deer RCMP General Investigation Section, said fentanyl has become the dealers’ “drug of choice,” because of the ease of acquiring it.
“There are definitely users who want and use fentanyl. But it’s easier and more economical to deal fentanyl than it is heroin,” said McKenzie.
“Getting a kilogram of heroin into North America requires a connection with organized crime and a lot of work. Getting fentanyl isn’t that difficult to get. It’s to the point where you can order it online.”
The Chinese and Canadian governments signed a memorandum of understanding in November aimed at disrupting the supply of fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
In medical practice opioids are often used to relieve pain, but can be addictive. Opioids includes drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl.
Vanderschaeghe said the problem starts with shipping different drugs into Canada to meet the demand for opiates.
“The business around bringing in drugs to sell in Canada has led to increasing the purity of the opiates,” Vanderschaeghe said. “Fentanyl was just the substantial upping the ante of this business issue.
“Fentanyl is really just the beginning of this. We saw fentanyl and then we saw W-18. We saw carfentanil.”
The clandestine production of fentanyl and other opioids and the inconsistency from pill-to-pill creates a danger.
But McKenzie said fentanyl has also been found laced into other drugs.
“We have seen fentanyl mixed with every type of drug known to us,” said McKenzie.
Police have taken steps to protect themselves including carrying NarCan kits (a nasal spray of naloxone, which can block the effects of opioids) in case they are exposed, working in pairs and wearing coloured gloves to enable them to see the white powder residue the drug can leave.
Similarly, opioid users are being encouraged to adopt a buddy system and have naloxone ready in case something goes wrong.