Illegal Drugs

Combatting Fentanyl Across Alberta

In the past year Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) has seized more than 21,000 fentanyl pills from communities big and small across the province. The tiny pills were responsible for a record number of overdoses and deaths across Alberta.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid drug that is approximately 80-100 times more toxic than morphine and 40 times more toxic than heroin. It is commonly used as an anesthetic in hospitals for surgery, or as a transdermal patch in extreme examples of pain management.

“The death toll fentanyl has taken across Alberta is like nothing I have experienced in my career,” said Staff Sergeant Pierre Blais, a 21-year Edmonton police veteran and member of ALERT Edmonton. Staff Sergeant Blais also sits on the Alberta Government’s fentanyl working group.

“The fatal dose of fentanyl is described as two micrograms – roughly the equivalent of two grains of salt. When the body overdoses it can quickly lead to stopped breathing and cardiac arrest. It happens very quickly.”

Fentanyl has recently been introduced to the Alberta illicit drug market by organized crime groups. ALERT made its first fentanyl seizure in Grande Prairie in June 2014 with 250 bluish green pills made to resemble oxycontin.

“The widespread abuse of Oxycodone underwent a change in 2012 when OxyNeo was introduced. Due to the unique properties of the new OxyNeo tablet, its controlled release mechanism cannot be altered, making it a less favourable product for illicit use,” explained Blais.

However, oxycodone was one of the most abused prescription drugs and demand on the illicit market remained high, especially given its addictive properties. Enter organized crime groups, who attempted to fill the need by introducing fentanyl that was packaged, pressed, and died, to resemble to now defunct oxycontin.

Organized crime groups across Alberta have been quick to try and capitalize on the fentanyl market for a variety of reasons:

First, fentanyl is relatively cheap to acquire and has a high profit margin for drug dealers. ALERT believes that fentanyl is originating in powder form and is being sourced from Asian markets. Canadian organized crime groups are importing the drug and pressing it into pills in clandestine laboratories with other chemicals.

“Quality control is not a concern for the criminals making these pills. Organized crime exists to make money and that is all they are concerned about,” said Blais.

Blais equated the fentanyl manufacturing process to making a batch of chocolate chip cookies. All the ingredients get mixed together in a bowl, but not all cookies contain the same number of chocolate chips. In the case of fentanyl acquired from a drug dealer, you are really “playing Russian roulette with your life” due to its toxicity and lack of quality control.

Another motivating factor for organized crime is addiction. Fentanyl is highly addictive, which helps ensure a loyal customer base for the drug dealer. ALERT investigations have found that drug dealers are acquiring fentanyl pills in bulk quantities from anywhere between $16-22 pills and in turn selling them for as much as $80.

Because fentanyl is cheap and highly addictive, it is also starting to be found in other drugs. Drug dealers will routinely add bulk to their drugs or “step” on them to increase their profits. Heroin, cocaine, and other drugs can be cut with fentanyl, in powder, liquid or pill form. Fentanyl has no distinct look, smell, or taste. Fentanyl pills have been mostly commonly seen as bluish green but the new trend is white fentanyl pills. Next week it could be a new colour.

“The reality with street drugs is that you never really know what you are getting. For the seasoned drug addict, or the teenager experimenting with some pills – fentanyl kills indiscriminately. Your next dose could be your last,” cautioned Blais.

If you’re concerned about your own, or someone else’s, misuse of fentanyl, or would simply like more information on drug use, contact the Addiction & Mental Health 24 Hour Helpline at 1-866-332-2322. If you suspect you, or some else is overdosing on fentanyl call 911.

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