Last month we debuted a new series on the top challenges faced by police in Canada with a look at cybercrime. Today we’re moving on to examine the ongoing fentanyl crisis, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of Canadians and strained the resources of police departments from major cities like Vancouver to remote Indigenous communities. Among Canadian universities, our online Bachelor of Arts in Policing program is uniquely positioned to help working police upgrade their education to better manage the complex dynamics that have precipitated this crisis.
What is fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid intended for acute pain relief. Commonly cited as being between 50 and 100 times as powerful as morphine, a dosage the equivalent of a grain of sand is enough to induce a heroin-like high, while two grains is enough to kill a healthy adult. In hospital settings, the drug is usually delivered via patches designed to deliver fentanyl’s effects evenly over two or three days. Unfortunately, the opioid is becoming an increasingly common ingredient in illicit street drugs, sometimes even being cut into non-narcotic drugs such as ecstasy and MDMA. In its pure form, fentanyl is a crystalline powder, making it easy to mix with drugs intended for snorting or injecting. Due to its potency, fentanyl abuse is extremely hazardous.
How many fentanyl deaths occur in Canada?
Fentanyl drug abuse has been directly linked with hundreds of deaths over the past few years. The crisis in Canada began on the west coast. The Globe and Mail reported that fentanyl deaths in Alberta alone jumped from 42 in 2012 to 418 in 2015. By 2017, British Columbia was suffering an average of 64 drug overdoses per month, with half of these being from fentanyl (CBC). In some areas of the country, fentanyl claims more lives than automobile accidents.
How did the fentanyl crisis happen?
Public health experts, law enforcement officials and journalists generally agree that the crisis is the result of three factors:
1. Fentanyl is relatively cheap to produce and import, but commands high prices on the street. Most fentanyl is manufactured in China, where pharmaceutical production is a major industry. A profitable black market has sprung up to supply North American drug dealers, who often order their fentanyl over the internet. As The Globe and Mail notes, a kilogram of fentanyl goes for roughly $21,000, and can be moved on the street for $20 million. The machinery required to press the drugs into tablets is also relatively inexpensive. Because there is so much shipping in general from China to Canada, and because laws prohibit authorities from opening packages under 30 grams in weight, it’s very easy to slip product across the border.
2. Doctors have been over-prescribing opioids for years, thanks to the efforts of pharmaceutical giants. According to the United Nations, Canadians consume more prescription opioids per-capita than any other country on Earth. A generation ago, doctors were extremely careful about giving out opioids, having recognized their well-documented addictive properties. Their use was limited to helping those in extreme pain. Thanks to the lobbying of Purdue, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, “in 1996, Health Canada approved OxyContin, a brand-name version of oxycodone, to relieve moderate-to-severe pain, heralding a sea change in the treatment of pain” (Globe). The company aggressively marketed its product to doctors for a variety of conditions, and prescriptions soared. Giving chronic pain sufferers open refills on Oxy meant more people than ever before were developing opioid dependencies, including those in the middle class. When insurance plans began to decline to cover OxyContin prescriptions, ironically citing its role in creating addicts, some users were forced to turn to the black market.
3. Government inaction. Governments have failed to take action to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions being given out for chronic pain. “Tough-on-crime” policies shuttered addiction treatment programs and the establishment of new safe injection sites was prevented; the few existing services in Canada, like Vancouver’s Insite, were only saved from shutdown by a Supreme Court ruling. Research has shown that “fatal overdoses near Insite decreased by 35 percent compared to a decrease of 9 percent in other areas of Vancouver,” while simultaneously controlling the spread of HIV, reducing crime, and helping as many as 57% of users enter into rehabilitation programs (CBC).
How does fentanyl abuse challenge law enforcement?
As we noted earlier, controlling fentanyl smuggling is extremely difficult thanks to the realities of international shipping. Overcrowded prisons and ineffective sentencing laws do little to hamper the drug trade while increasing rates of convicted criminals tending to reoffend. It’s also so cheap to start up a fentanyl operation that new suppliers spring up within weeks of major busts.
The drug itself is extremely hazardous to officers. Officers have been hospitalized after handling fentanyl, and in one instance a Montreal police lab had to be quarantined when large quantities of the drug were brought in (Globe). As Global News has reported, it’s nearly impossible for police to always be prepared to deal with fentanyl because it has become so prevalent—any call, from a shooting to a domestic disturbance, could potentially expose officers.
How can the fentanyl crisis be resolved?
With educational opportunities growing that are geared towards law enforcement, police services will benefit from an influx of officers with knowledge about the importance of harm reduction, and community policing initiatives. Improving access to drug testing kits and Naloxone, which can temporarily reverse overdoses, will also help, at least in the short term. In the long term, initiatives to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions written in Canada, support prescription fraud investigations, while increasing funding for addiction counselling, and safe injection sites that help victims overcome their dependencies, would help alleviate the crisis that police forces are at the front lines of fighting. It is also important, as the example of Purdue and OxyContin has shown, to reduce the ability of pharmaceutical companies to lobby health authorities. By reducing the market for these drugs, police, and other authorities can continue to make a real, and lasting, difference in this growing crisis.