There’s no such thing as a “normal” day in Vancouver’s drug scene, but last Sunday must have broken all records for abnormality. In that one day, there were 16 potentially lethal overdoses — at least those that made it into the official record. In one hour alone, there were six.
The drug involved? It was a pink concoction of heroin, mixed with fentanyl.
Fentanyl is deadly — it’s a painkiller hundreds of times more powerful than heroin and 80 times more powerful than Oxycontin, which is sold on the streets in fake form as green pills that contain fentanyl.
You can buy them in Red Deer, if you know the right (wrong) people. And we know that at least six people in Red Deer have been killed by fentanyl — or their drug dealer, depending on how you look at things.
The line between getting high on fentanyl and being dead on fentanyl is extremely narrow. But it is cheap for drug cartels to buy in bulk overseas, easy to mix with other substances, and to press into pills and distribute.
An overdose is easy to spot and easy to treat, if someone calls for help in time. A drug called Naloxone, sold as Narcan, can be injected and within minutes it binds to the gateway cells in the brain than take in opiates, blocking opiates from having any effect.
In the case of a fentanyl overdose, blocking the effect means the drug user continues to breathe and continues to have a heartbeat. Pretty simple.
The federal government continues to oppose at every opportunity community efforts to reduce the harm of drug addiction and to save the lives of people who have overdosed. Right up to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that Vancouver’s safe injection program, Insite, must be afforded exemption from drug enforcement laws in order to operate.
As a result, although people do overdose on their illegal drugs at Insite, thus far, none of them has died from it. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Canada, it seems, is one of the top countries in the world for opiate abuse. And with the arrival of fentanyl in bulk on our shores over the past couple of years, B.C. has experienced overdose deaths at a rate of about two deaths every three days. In Alberta, the overdose rate in 2014 was reported at roughly one every three days.
An overdose from fentanyl is easily treated with Narcan at a harm reduction site.
Many would think these deaths are among street-level addicts. As if that makes it easy for us to look the other way. The experts who follow this are quick to point out that this is not the real picture.
Regular middle class teens, well rounded kids with a great future, go to a party and are given a green pill they believe is Oxycontin. Jack Bodie, 17, died from that mistake.
Amelia and Hardy Leighton, caring parents of a two-year-old, thought they’d inhale a recreational drug one evening. Not a good couple activity; it was fentanyl, and they died.
Some 11,600 tabs of fentanyl were reported seized in a police raid in Calgary earlier this year. You can safely bet a portion of them were bound for sale in Red Deer. Forty tabs were seized in Lacombe not too long ago. Each one could be a potential death.
The staff at Insite in Vancouver describe it this way. Fentanyl is bought as a bulk powder by drug gangs, and mixed down with other stuff in a bathtub and the appropriate green or red dye is added. It is then pressed into pills and sold.
Each pill is like a chocolate chip cookie. Some cookies have lots of chocolate (fentanyl) chips in them, some have just a few. Pick the wrong cookie and you die.
Jennifer Vanderschaege, executive director of the AIDS network in Red Deer, said in an interview earlier this year that a big barrier to people reporting a friend’s overdose is fear of exposure, and fear of legal reprisal. This is highly illegal activity we’re talking about here, after all.
She’d like to see a law in the books like a Good Samaritan law, where people could call authorities and save a friend’s life without having to fear exposure or reprisal.
Adrienne Smith of Pivot Legal Services in Vancouver would like to see the complete repeal of Bill C-2, the federal Respect for Communities Act.
The Supreme Court unanimously decided that Insite saves lives and should therefore get its legal exemption to operate.
The feds came out with Bill C-2 and said, basically: Sure, we’ll give you your exemption, but you have to reapply for it every year, and every year anyone in the community and in law enforcement can come out and speak against it during a rigorous review process.
Insite still operates precariously under Bill C-2, but the review process bar is so high, it’s highly unlikely any other city could get a life-saving site like Insite. This, during a poisonous fentanyl crisis that kills people across the country every day.
Even in the unlikely event the Conservatives are defeated in the Oct. 19 election, a new federal health minister cannot issue another licence for a safe injection site, until Bill C-2 is repealed. The legal process just prohibits doing that.
Probably, some time or other in this long election campaign, someone will bring this to greater public attention. Saving lives should matter, during an election.
Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. See his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.