Local drug users seeking new highs are experimenting with a potent drug, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Sault Ste. Marie Police Service drug enforcement team sees a recent spike in the illegal use of fentanyl, a highly addictive prescription opioid, 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
Det. Sgt. Chris Chiappetta, who heads the SSMPS street team, confirmed anecdotally deaths locally from fentanyl overdose as recently as this past summer.
At least one local high-school-age person has died as a result of overdosing on fentanyl, he said, adding, SSMPS does not track the number of deaths from fentanyl overdoses.
Jennifer Kerr, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Coroners’ Office in Toronto, confirmed that between one and five deaths resulted from acute fentanyl toxicity in the Sault in 2011.
Disclosure of the exact number would be in violation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act when the number of deaths reported is fewer than five, she said.
Recent changes and restrictions on access to oxycontin, another opioid painkiller, may have contributed to the increase in recreational use of fentanyl, Chiappetta said.
He pointed out the drug has been used illegally in the Sault for some time.
Fentanyl is included as a banned substance in Schedule One of the Narcotic Control Act but it can be possessed legally with a medical prescription, and that presents a hurdle to law enforcement, Chiappetta said.
“The frustration for police is these are prescription drugs, and some of the abuse is by people who are in lawful possession,” he said.
“All I can say is we very actively conduct enforcement, and when any illegal abuse of the drug is reported we act immediately,” he said.
“We are trying to curtail any kind of trafficking, but it is a battle with any kind of prescription medication because there are times when people can lawfully possess the drug even if they are abusing it.”
Fentanyl was first developed in 1959, and is used medically for anesthesia during operations, and in a slow release patch form, introduced in 1992, for chronic pain sufferers. A generic version of the fentanyl patch was added to Ontario Drug Beneﬁts formula in 2006.
The drug is extremely potent, but several other factors influence overdosing on fentanyl, Chiappetta said.
It is designed to release its ingredients slowly over 72 hours, so if it is used at one time, and the user is not aware or skilled with the drug, that is where overdoses can occur, Chiappetta said. It takes time for users who are new to a drug like fentanyl to adjust the amount of intake to avoid overdoses.
Oxycontin brought similar problems when it first emerged as a recreational drug on the streets back around 2000 and fatalities did occur locally that led to a coroner’s investigation.
The rash of robberies at local pharmacies associated with oxycontin a few years back has not happened yet with fentanyl, Chiappetta said. Prescription fentanyl was targeted during some home break-ins, however.
Unfortunately, recreational drugs users who are addicted to opioids, or who just seek a high, will search out alternatives when their drug of choice cannot be obtained easily, he agreed.
“It is the same problem with all drug abusers,” Chiappetta said. “It is impossible to help someone who doesn’t want help unless they are looking for it.”
He hears all the time from drug users on the street about the long wait time to get into the methadone treatment program, he said. “They try to get in but can’t, but the bigger problem is you have to reach the point where you want help and people don’t get there in time.”
Numerous messages left to Elizabeth Larocque, Algoma Public Health director Community Alcohol/Drug Assessment Program, and Leo Vecchio, APH media spokesperson, requesting information about accessing the methadone treatment program in the Sault, were not returned.
An employee of the Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre on Queen Street, however, denied that wait times are long to access methadone treatment in the Sault.
Three clients outside the clinic, however, disputed that claim, each saying it took two to three months of waiting before his or her methadone treatment began.
One female client said she was given access to the methadone treatment right away because she was pregnant when she applied.
It is a sad reality today that so-called hard drugs have replaced soft drugs like marijuana as a way to get high for many recreational users, said Chiappetta. Many opioids are so addictive, users become desperate, and will commit crimes to finance and appease their addictions.
Cities in Ontario face a growing problem with fentanyl abuse and rising deaths that have alarmed health experts and police alike.
A Jan. 15 article in the North Bay Nugget reported that “fentanyl was either the sole cause or contributed to nine deaths -- four males and five females -- in the North Bay area between June 2007 and May 2011.”
The 2012 death of a 17-year-old high school student in Manotick, a bedroom community outside Ottawa, sparked a major CBC investigative report.
About 253 deaths in Ontario from 2009 to 2011 were linked to fentanyl overdoses according to Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner, more than three times the number of deaths linked to heroin in the same timeframe, the CBC reported.
Ottawa police were unaware of a fentanyl problem until they arrested a young offender early in 2012 charged with over a dozen residential break-ins in the Manotick area, the CBC said. The young offender told police he committed the crimes because of his fentanyl addiction.
Ottawa Police Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban told CBC the police had heard some teens were experimenting with the drug in area high schools and school officials in the Manotick area reported more than a dozen students at one school allegedly addicted to fentanyl.
The signs of fentanyl and other opioids use include: drowsiness or nodding, constricted or pinpoint pupils, slurred speech, and impaired attention or memory.
Some signs of opioid withdrawal include: dilated pupils, anxiety, irritability, anger, agitation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweats and chills.