No Discrimination – The Fentanyl Epidemic
The midnight sky is dark as thick snowflakes fall in the frigid air towards the earth. As the snow blanket’s Downtown Vancouver’s city streets, a high-pitched wail screams throughout the Downtown Eastside. Increasing in volume, flickering, and panicked red and white lights reflect themselves on the wet streets.
It’s an ambulance, and it’s rushing towards another suspected fentanyl overdose victim.
The numbers shock even seasoned veterans in the field.
Per the BC Coroners Service, there were 922 illicit drug overdose deaths in 2016. In 60% of these deaths, the potent opioid fentanyl was detected.
Fentanyl made its way onto Vancouver’s streets in late 2012. However, since 2014 combating the fentanyl epidemic has been of the utmost importance for the Vancouver Police Department.
Constable Jason Doucette, Media Relations Officer with the Vancouver Police Department, believes that education and communication are the key to curing Vancouver of its fentanyl addiction. The VPD’s motivations in combating the crisis are simple, “We don’t want people dying,” Doucette said.
Fentanyl’s deadly potency is intertwined in its chemical bonds. 100X more powerful than morphine or heroin, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and painkiller, also acts as a respiratory suppressant. Affecting the brain and nervous system, the respiratory system essentially forgets to breathe.
“You breathe slower, and slower, and slower, until you stop,” said Barbara McLintock, of the BC Coroners Service. “I used to say this to people out on the street; somebody who’s snoring very loudly and slowly, and you think they may have taken drugs, they aren’t snoring, they’re dying.”
The VPD also practices the “Four Pillars Approach”, which are prevention, harm reduction, enforcement, and treatment. From the “enforcement” branch, they prevent fentanyl from appearing on the street.
Most importantly however, is the VPD’s “Non-response policy”, in which they encourage anyone who is suffering from an overdose, or is witnessing someone who’s overdosing, to call 911 immediately.
If a person is using and overdoses, it’s probably too late to save themselves. Doucette says that if a person is going to use narcotics, there’s safety in numbers.
“We don’t want them looking over their shoulder and worried, or being hesitant of calling, worrying that the police are going to come and arrest them from a minor offense,” said Doucette. “The last reason we’re coming is to investigate that person who’s using drugs.”
Investigating all non-natural deaths in BC, the Coroners Service is “the only jurisdiction in Canada able to provide statistics and analysis to the stakeholders very close to real-time,” said McLintock. “So, the people who are actually doing policy decisions, have really good data to go on, and recognize what new trends are coming along.”
“We’re sort of the canary in the coalmine, the ones who actually die,” said McLintock.
On the other side of the field, the VPD’s recent lobbying of the federal government led to a change in legislation. Most of the fentanyl the VPD intercepts is being shipped from China. In most cases, officers with the Canada Border Services Agency legally couldn’t open packages under 30 grams. The laws have been changed so the CBSA is now able to open these smaller packages, and prevent more fentanyl from appearing on the streets.
Drug manufactures will take a drug (commonly cocaine, not heroin as originally suspected by the Coroners Service), and cut it with a buffer (an additive), to increase the volume, and therefore the amount of product they can sell, which leads to a higher profit. While tarnishing the quality, it’s very cheap from a drug dealers point of view.
“With the fentanyl, they’re adding it to increase the potency of what would otherwise be a poor-quality drug…it’s all about money,” said Doucette.
McLintock said that a high proportion of deaths are referred to as “multi-drug overdoses.” “Often, [fentanyl] is either the cause or a key contributing factor,” she said.
Another step in combating the fentanyl epidemic is viewing the downtrodden addicts of the Downtown Eastside as human beings. As Doucette said, the officers who are working the beat in the DTES are in an area that most people have given up on. Yet despite this, the officers build relationships with the addicts living there, usually by aiding them with food, housing, or by contacting loved ones.
For the officer’s however, this fight can often be traumatic, or even in vain, especially when a person dies. “We notice when people aren’t around,” said Doucette. “It’s got to be difficult; they’re in some way losing some friends.”
In a recent VPD Police Board meeting, Staff Sergeant Bill Spearn reinforced the notion that since 2014, the VPD attributes the contamination of the illicit drug supply with fentanyl.
While Vancouver is ground zero for the fentanyl epidemic, the rest of BC, and many cities across Canada are beginning to fall victim.
Because this is a drug that spares no victim, is laced in various narcotics, and affects anyone from university students to hardcore addicts, fentanyl has no boundaries.
Per a report by the CBC, a fentanyl dose the size of a grain of sand can be fatal.
“You and I both get a homemade chocolate chip cookie, mine might have 10 chocolate chips in it, and yours might have 25 in it. I may be fine, but because you’ve ingested so many chocolate chips, or so much fentanyl, you’re not. You never know what you’re going to get,” said Doucette.
“It’s unpredictable, and it’s killing a lot of people.”
As that ambulance barrels down the streets of Downtown Vancouver in the night, most people brush off the fentanyl crisis as a disease of stricken drug addicts. Yet, maybe one day, the person inside that ambulance will be a loved one, or even themselves.