By Trevor Busch
Alberta’s opioid abuse levels have reached near-epidemic proportions in early 2017, and Taber is not immune to the crisis that is reaching the streets in communities across the province.
Alberta, like many provinces, has seen a rapid rise in fentanyl-related overdose deaths over the past few years. Fentanyl is a potent, synthetic opioid pain medication with a rapid onset and short duration of action. Fentanyl is estimated to have about 80 times the potency of morphine.
“(We) Released information to the public about fentanyl in our community and the concerns the Taber Police Service has with its use,” said Chief Graham Abela in his written report at the Jan. 11 regular meeting of the Taber Municipal Police Commission. “Twenty-two hundred hits on the Facebook page means that the message went out to the community and beyond.”
In November 2016, Abela attended an Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police meeting in Red Deer, where the membership discussed the fentanyl crisis and Naloxone administration.
“I can tell you that a very topical conversation occurred around the fentanyl issues that are occurring in Western Canada. Our discussion there was around the Alberta response. I’ve gone to the media with regards to that locally, as well as meeting with the new chief medical examiner of the province, just to talk about what the health perspective is in relation to the fentanyl deaths that are occurring in the province, so we can have a little bit better understanding locally about what we’re seeing.”
Fentanyl misuse first became prominent with the diversion of pharmaceutical forms of the drug, such as the patch. However, in recent months, the RCMP has reported an increase in domestic production of illicit fentanyl. Fentanyl is very toxic, with a dose the size of two grains of salt being potentially lethal. Fentanyl is made and sold in many different forms and can be hiding in other drugs.
“We have to be realistic about it,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger, in an interview following the commission’s Jan. 11 meeting. “We see it on TV being used all over the place. Vancouver jumps out right now with the press. It’s sad to see how many people died of that stuff in December. You can put a blind eye to it, but it will happen everywhere, that’s just a fact of life. Of course, we want to deal with it accordingly. It’s becoming a problem in society.”
Canada and the U.S. have reached the status of having the highest per capita volume of opioids dispensed in the world, while according to some reports, two people die from an opioid overdose every day in Ontario and one of every eight deaths in Ontario among young adults is related to an opioid overdose. In the U.S., over 14,000 people died as a result of opioid overdoses in 2014. B.C. is currently struggling with a huge influx of fentanyl that led to 238 deaths in the first half of 2016, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency in that province.
“Property crime is up. This is a trend occurring throughout Alberta, and one we were expecting to hit our community also,” said Abela in his written report to the commission. “Break and enters and property crimes fuel the drug trade. As we have seen an increase in fentanyl and crystal meth usage in southern Alberta, we can draw a nexus in Calgary and one that may be occurring on a minor scale in and around our community. A saving grace for our police service is that we have a great solvability rate, meaning that if a property crime occurs, there is an excellent chance that it will be successfully solved and the offenders prosecuted.”
In Taber and area, Taber/Vauxhall RCMP reported a single incident of a non-fatal fentanyl overdose in Vauxhall in January 2016, and as early as March 2015 the Taber Police Service was warning of the presence of fentanyl in the community being sold in pill form under the street name “Shady 80s”.
According to provincial government statistics, between January and September 2016, 338 Albertans died from an apparent drug overdose related to fentanyl or another opioid; 193 of these deaths were related to fentanyl. This compares to 205 fentanyl-related deaths during the first nine months of 2015. The majority of deaths (89 per cent in 2016 and 83 per cent in 2015) have occurred in larger urban centers.
Fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Alberta have seen a steep rise since 2011 (6), escalating to 29 in 2012, 66 in 2013, 117 in 2014, and an alarming 257 in 2015. The rate of emergency department visits related to opioid use and substance misuse increased by 84 per cent from the first quarter of 2014 to the second quarter of 2016.
Another dangerous illicit substance, crystal methamphetamine, has also been making significant inroads into the community in recent months, according to Abela.
“I’m sure you’re all aware through the media that there was a large seizure of crystal methamphetamines in Barnwell. We assisted with that investigation. This is an issue for southern Alberta, and it’s really coming to a head. A community response is required in relation to this. We have had one overdose in our community from it. The overdose didn’t result in a fatality, but just dealing with crystal methamphetamine as a police service is very difficult. It’s highly addictive, it brings about psychotic or paranoid episodes. Our officers need to be equipped and trained to deal with those types of people, which they are. But it’s just a real scourge on the community. We’re going to see things like our petty crime rate, mischiefs, thefts, frauds, go up, and it’s as a result of this addictions issue. Although we are the brunt of it, because we are the police service that has to deal with those complaints, it is a policing issue, but it’s not only a policing issue. It has major components throughout society. We’ll do our part, but others have to step up as well.”
There are more addictions treatment options available in the community today than there were in the early part of the past decade.
“In 2003, when TCAD (Taber Community Against Drugs) was formed, as the result of a community initiative led by the police service, to get more people involved in the identification around the use and abuse of crack-cocaine in the community. We’re involved heavily still with TCAD, and our members that are a part of TCAD will be working with them moving forward. We have a lot more capacity in the community now, we have the addictions personnel here. We didn’t have that in 2003.”
Make no mistake, according to Abela, crystal methamphetamine is now present in the community.
“Our school resource officer is there, and we have a full program that we offer all the schools in relation to controlled substance education and awareness. But it’s all about resiliency. It’s all about establishing it in children that are young, the abilities, the skills, the competencies, to be resilient to the use and abuse of substances. We have a good track record. I can tell you that since 2003, we haven’t had methamphetamine in the community — crystal methamphetamine specifically — as an issue. We have an issue now. We have an individual, it’s here, we have a large seizure in Barnwell. We just need a different approach.”
As for a role for the police commission in helping to address the issue in the community, Abela was cautious to suggest the commission maintain its regulatory duties before expanding its role.
“I’m not sure that the police commission specifically needs to be there. I don’t think that’s the role that I need from you. But as a police agency, what I need is absolutely 100 per cent support around resources, and good governance and leadership from the perspective of helping us as a police agency do what we need to do, in relation to moving forward with the community response. Quite often the police can be the leader of those types of community responses, but we can’t often be the chariot. We can’t be the organization that holds everyone else up, somebody else from the community has to do that.”
Commission representative Wanda Osburne-Campbell pushed for a more authoritarian approach to the issue, suggesting locker searchs or police dog units be deployed in the community.
“I think we should get some kind of access going on for high school. Locker searches, or police dog searches, because I know it’s a very important part of our community right now with this drug going around, becaused this drug can kill people. It’s killed quite a few people in Alberta as it is. That’s what I’m scared of — it’s killing our children.”
Coun. Randy Sparks, one of two council representatives on the police commission, recommended harsh penalties for prospective drug offenders.
“I think that’s a good start, but it needs to go much higher than that. The word needs to go out from the public to judges, government agencies, anyone associated with this issue. They need to know that we as citizens expect individuals involved in the drug trade to be dealt with very harshly. My personal opinion is, if you are a fentanyl drug dealer, you need to be charged with attempted murder as far as I’m concerned, because that’s how serious this is. We cannot have people in positions of power making decisions on this, to be ‘wussies’ about this. They need to take the lead and deal with it. I’m very disappointed that the word is out that marijuana may be legalized — I find that people involved with this, making decisions on charges, aren’t quite as harsh as they need to be.”
Chair Ken Holst agreed with Sparks in expressing a critical view of upcoming legislative changes that are likely to alter the current prohibited legal status of marijuana in Canada in 2017.
“You bring up a good point with the legalization of marijuana. It almost deadens that need — if there’s an acceptance for drugs to be legalized, then how far does that acceptance start to go?”
There are a number of ways for drug users to minimize some of the risk in taking drugs, including: Do not use alone; do “test shots”; use in small amounts if drugs have not been used in a while; remember that even small amounts can result in overdose; do not mix drugs; avoid “speedballing” (using cocaine and heroin or related opioids together); and always carry a Naloxone kit and learn rescue breathing.
Some of the symptoms of an opiate overdose include: Slow or loss of breathing; nails or lips turn blue; choking or vomiting; making gurgling sounds; skin is cold or clammy; and can’t be woken up. Many people have reported finding users dead from overdose after hearing very loud snoring from them in the hours leading up to their deaths.
Following the meeting, Mayor Henk DeVlieger expressed a need to try to find the root of the addictions issue before an effective response can be crafted.
“We try to deal with it as a society by putting bandages on, and having more social help, more mental help, but we really need to start looking at what the root of the problem is, why is this all escalating? Because you can put bandages on the bleeding, but it doesn’t stop the wound from being dealt with. So we really as a society have to start taking a look, why is this all happening, is it the result of what? I personally have some opinions about it, but I think we have to start seriously looking at it that way.”