Illicit opioids are showing up more frequently on the streets of Port Alberni and local police and health officials want the message to be loud and clear about what to do in the case of an overdose.
During a town hall meeting on Wednesday evening at the Best Western Barclay Hotel approximately 150 people showed up to listen to officers with the Port Alberni RCMP and Island Health officials speak on fentanyl and crime in the Alberni Valley.
Port Alberni RCMP detachment Inspector Brian Hunter, who spearheaded the meeting, said people who have family members or friends that are illicit drug users should always call 911 right away in the case of an overdose and not worry about charges.
“In the last year we had dozens of overdoses, not necessarily deaths, but overdoses…dozens of them. Many have turned into deaths,” Hunter said. “If you’re in an environment where you know somebody is going downhill or overdosing, call 911. When you’re hiding this stuff, you’re killing people. All of us members have Naloxone. Call the police, we’re not there to charge you, we’re there to save lives.”
He related a story about a call paramedics made, responding to a person whose heart had stopped. A well-meaning family member had cleaned up drug paraphernalia that would have tipped off the paramedics that the person was possibly overdosing, and they were unable to save the victim.
A lethal dose of fentanyl only requires about two milligrams of the drug and can cause fatalities just from touching it or breathing it in.
“We have people dying from this drug all of a sudden…how did we get to that point?” said Clive Seabrook, RCMP drugs and major crime expert. “Drug dealers saw the profits that were involved (with fentanyl) and the profits were almost cartoonish, they’re so unbelievable.”
Seabrook said that in Port Alberni the average street-level dealer is buying an ounce of cocaine for about $1,800, flipping it at $10 a gram and making about $1,000 profit. Whereas with fentanyl, he said, it will cost approximately $12,000 Canadian for a kilogram, which can make about one million tablets. Each tablet is sold for $20 to $40, which can generate a profit between $20 and $40 million.
“As first responders, fentanyl is probably the biggest threat that we have today. In Vancouver it’s a war zone,” Seabrook said. “It’s only getting worse.”
Seabrook said most drug users aren’t out on the street looking for fentanyl, but rather their drug of choice. Unfortunately with cross-contamination and intentional cutting of cheaper material occurring in drug labs, people may think they’re doing a hit of cocaine and could end up dying from fentanyl.
“One time you might be safe, the next time you might die, there’s no way of knowing,” Seabrook said.
Illicit drug use, Seabrook said, often stems from chronic pain. “A lot of people are victims of a circumstance, they were in a bad car accident or they have some kind of medical condition, where at the end of the day, they’re in some kind of chronic pain,” he said.
He said historically chronic pain victims became addicted to pain killers like Oxycodone—which can be crushed and snorted or liquefied and injected. In 2012, Oxycodone was removed from treatment protocols. Pharmacies began releasing a tamper-proof drug called Oxyneo that can’t be easily crushed or liquefied. “So people went looking for a substitute…what happened was they found fentanyl,” Seabrook said.
Although fentanyl has been recently showing up more on the Island and in B.C., the deadly opioid has actually been around for a long time.
“Pharmaceutical fentanyl has been around for quite some time but illicit fentanyl has also been around for many years, it just took a while to get to the West Coast,” Seabrook said. “Initially we started seeing a lot in Mexico and we saw a lot of deaths from the toxicity levels of fentanyl in Mexico…eventually what we ended up seeing was more and more of it being produced and shipped over from China.”
Over the last 10 years in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, Island Health has recorded about 20 to 25 overdose deaths from illicit drugs.
Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health medical health officer, said in the Alberni Valley, there’s about 160 regular injection users, 120 occasional injection users and 275 regular non-injection users. There are also 3,500 people who used marijuana in the past year, he added.
He said 80 per cent of overdoses that occur in the community are getting treated with Naloxone prior to a hospital emergency room visit.
“This is good news, it’s saving a lot of lives,” Hasselback said. “Naloxone distribution has gone fairly well in the community. But I think there could be more Naloxone out there.”
Overdose prevention for the Valley will most likely be seen soon through an overdose prevention site.
“I think I can safely say that Port Alberni will be the next Island community that will have an overdose prevention site,” Hasselback said. “Whenever sites go up we see a slight reduction in overdoses.”
Additionally, prevention outreach is being conducted by the Valley’s Health Outreach Program (HOP) that has been operational for the past 15 years.
“It is a unique asset,” Hasselback said. “Nurses and other health care workers go out and actually work with the users where they are. This influx of new narcotic that’s hit the street is something that we need to adapt to.”
The most common drugs that are trafficked in the Valley include cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, GHB and prescription pain killers.
After a question period, inspector Hunter added the the police can’t just arrest their way out of the drug problem.
“If we arrest 10 (dealers) tonight, there will be 10 more on the street tomorrow,” Hunter said “Folks that need to hear this may not be in the room tonight. Please pass the message on.”