Police are treating the fentanyl crisis as if it’s an outbreak of disease, says a Victoria police drug expert.
“Police departments are now working co-operatively like never before with paramedics, with firefighters, with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, with emergency-room physicians, with epidemiologists,” Staff Sgt. Conor King said at a workshop this week teaching first responders how to handle the deadly narcotic and its victims safely.
“We’re looking at this situation and responding to it in a way that we would deal with an outbreak of a disease. Law enforcement is working hand-in-hand with the medical community because so many citizens are dying so rapidly.”
The two-day workshop, sponsored by the Justice Institute of B.C. and the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, was held to train police, paramedics, firefighters, correctional officers, Canada Border Services agents and Transport Canada staff in how to deal with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more powerful than heroin.
It was also an opportunity for the law-enforcement community to call on Health Canada to regulate pill presses, which can churn out as many as 18,000 counterfeit Oxycontin tablets laced with fentanyl in an hour.
Pill presses can be bought online and shipped in from overseas, said King.
“They can be tracked. And we’re well aware of who takes receipt of these pill presses, but currently there’s no way that the police can stop them. We’re working on changing the laws surrounding the importation of pill presses.”
There’s no legitimate reason for someone to have a pill press, King said. The sole reason pill presses are being imported is for the production of counterfeit Oxycontin pills, which typically contain fentanyl.
“The proliferation of those pills on the street is responsible for a great number of fatal overdoses,” King said.
The counterfeit pills are being sold across North America, but particularly in Victoria, Vancouver, other parts of B.C. and Alberta.
“Every day, heroin users buy what they think is going to be something usable, and it turns out to be a lethal or extremely dangerous dose of pill that contains fentanyl, not heroin, not oxycodone. They are basically tricked into buying something that has a high fatality rate.”
Regulating pill presses would stop at least one part of street-level distribution, King said.
RCMP Cpl. Eric Boechler, a member of the federal clandestine-lab enforcement and response team, believes regulating the pill presses on a provincial and federal level could have a huge impact.
“The pill presses are pumping out pharmaceutical-grade tablets that are directly mimicking what a drug user would assume is a pharmaceutical pill,” he said.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and department officials are looking into the issue of pill presses as part of a comprehensive approach to combat prescription drug and opioid use, said a statement from her office.
“The use of industrial pill presses to illicitly manufacture drugs that pose a risk to public health and safety is a serious problem,” Health Canada said, adding that under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, pill presses being used in the illicit manufacturing of controlled substances, such as pills containing fentanyl, can be considered offence-related property and can be seized by law enforcement.
The death toll from accidental illicit-drug overdoses, largely due to fentanyl, has alarmed public-health officials.
Last week, the B.C. Coroners Service said there were 308 overdose deaths in the province in the first four months of this year, compared with 175 for the same period last year, a 75 per cent increase.
If the trend continues, more than 700 people will die from drug overdoses this year.
But the synthetic opioid also poses a lethal danger to police and other first responders. There have been close calls across North America, King said.
“Because fentanyl is so lethal at such small doses and the powder form can be disturbed or moved or projected up into the atmosphere, a first responder who walks into a fentanyl laboratory could inadvertently breathe in some of the fentanyl or be exposed to it through mucus membranes.
“A very small dose — two milligrams — is considered lethal and could cause death to the first responder very quickly and easily.”
Officers deal with high-risk environments all the time. Methamphetamine and ecstasy labs are extremely dangerous, Boechler said, but fentanyl has upped the ante.
“It’s such a dangerous compound. We have to take specific actions to manage those risks.”
Officers can wear fully enclosed suits to prevent exposure to liquids or powders, he said.