The opioid problem is here to stay

A crisis usually connotes an emergency, a quick response, and ideally, a quick resolution. It is difficult to sustain public interest when a “crisis” continues year after year.  The opioid crisis is driven by fentanyl and carfentanyl, highly addictive and toxic synthetic opium type street drugs.

Since January 2016 to mid 2018, 8,000 Canadians have died of overdoses from these drugs – mostly accidental but some suicides too.  Previously, drug overdoses were mostly related to long term drug use. Now there is a shift to those taking the drug for the first time or suffering with long term pain.

In Alberta 1,249 accidentally died in the same timeframe – 348 in 2016, 569 in 2017 and 355 so far in 2018.  Most of these deaths occur in Edmonton, Calgary and Alberta’s mid-sized cities.

This problem is putting an increased strain on emergency medical services. There are about 2,800 ambulance calls or emergency visits each quarter. There were 10,000 hospital stays attributed to drug problems from 2015 to 2018.

The antidote for an overdose is Naloxone, and AHS has distributed almost 80,000 kits to make administering the antidote widely available via 1,600 locations such as Alberta Community Council on HIV network, pharmacies and hospitals.  So far 4,500 antidotes have been administered, presumably saving as many lives!

Fentanyl in small quantities can easy slip into the province and have major impacts.  The police are always in catch up mode. It can easily be mixed and passed off as other drugs, and addicts or thrill-seeking users won’t know what they are taking.

Police are responding by trying to interdict the supply and apprehend the drug dealers.  This month in Medicine Hat, two guys were apprehended with a storage locker full of methamphetamines, cocaine and fentanyl powder.

In August, Edmonton Police discovered a lab in a suburban home where fentanyl was being processed. More than two kilograms of processed fentanyl was seized. The lab was set up to specifically produce fentanyl to be passed off as heroin to unsuspecting buyers.

But with all these actions from police health and community agencies, there is no quick fix in sight. Perhaps harsher penalties for drug dealers and smugglers will change their risk reward calculation. Naloxone kits prevent deaths but are a band-aid solution, not really getting at the underlying issues of addiction and the criminal drug subculture.

Thus it seems that an annual death rate of over 1,000 people per year is in our future for the next number of years.