The Province


Lethal street drug has been linked to more than 1,000 deaths across Canada in recent years, and 2015 appears to have been B.C.’s deadliest year

- CHERYL CHAN chchan@theprovinc­

2015 is shaping up to be B.C.’s deadliest year for fentanyl-related deaths.

In recent years, fentanyl has risen from relative obscurity to become a lethal street drug linked to more than 1,000 drug-poisoning deaths across Canada between 2009 and 2014, with more than half of those deaths occurring in 2013 and 2014.

A powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl was developed to treat chronic pain and was typically delivered through a patch worn on the skin.

Today, abuse of fentanyl is rampant. It is embraced by dealers and users for its low cost, high potency and addictive properties — and leaves in its wake thousands of shattered families.

“Fentanyl is a special evil,” said Mark Bodie, whose teenage son Jack Bodie died last August after snorting half of a “fake Oxy” pill laced with fentanyl.

“They’re putting it in everything because it’s cheap, it’s powerful and it’s incredibly alluring and amazingly addictive.”

The drug slowed down the 17-yearold boy’s breathing and heartbeat. Within minutes, his whole system had shut down to a state of coma.

“You just go,” said Bodie. “There’s no saving yourself. It’s not as if you can overcome it. It overcomes you.”

Jack’s death plunged his Burnaby family into grief, but Bodie said the tragedy goes beyond their pain: “This isn’t just about us. There are hundreds and hundreds of families across Canada dealing with their child’s death as a result of fentanyl.”

Fentanyl-detected deaths in B.C. spiked from 13 in 2012 to 90 in 2014, a nearly seven-fold increase. Officially, B.C. had 91 fentanyl-detected deaths up until August 2015 — already one more than the toll in 2014.

“We are concerned we are going to have the largest number of overdose deaths from fentanyl in 2015,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, deputy provincial health officer.

Except for one confirmed fentanyl case, the cause of a rash of fatal overdoses over the holidays, including eight in Victoria and four in Vancouver, remains undetermin­ed pending toxicology reports. But health officials fear the worst.

Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have jumped from five per cent to 30 per cent of all overdose deaths in recent years, said Henry. They’re “not all of them,” she noted. “But it’s a huge proportion and a dramatic increase.”

Experts say the fentanyl crisis is part of an ongoing epidemic of opioid prescripti­on and abuse across Canada.

Its start can be traced to 2012, when OxyContin, the notoriousl­y abused opiate, was replaced by a tamperresi­stant version.

A decline in OxyContin use triggered a turn to fentanyl, which is more powerful than oxycodone and 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“It’s the unintended consequenc­e of cracking down or limiting a market,” said Dan Werb, executive director of the Toronto-based Internatio­nal Centre for Science in Drug Policy. “It’s called the balloon effect. You poke one part of it, the other parts expand.”

In B.C., the first police alert on fentanyl came in April 2013 when Prince George RCMP warned drug users to be wary of a powerful narcotic resembling heroin being sold on the streets.

A month later, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall issued a bulletin about the growing danger following 23 deaths in the first four months of the year.

Now such alerts have become alarmingly commonplac­e.

“2015 seems to be when it just took off,” said Vancouver Police Department spokesman Const. Brian Montague of fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths.

Police believe only a small percentage of fentanyl on the streets is from “diverted” prescripti­ons. The vast majority comes from illicitly manufactur­ed fentanyl or fentanyl analogs smuggled from overseas. They can be sold as fake oxy or club drugs and are often mixed into other drugs such as cocaine, heroin or crystal meth.

Some people unwittingl­y consume fentanyl, while others deliberate­ly seek out the euphoric high provided by the drug. But because quality control of illicitly manufactur­ed fentanyl is non-existent, levels of toxicity and potency are unknown and each swallow or inhalation is like a game of Russian roulette.

Police are trying to get the deadly drug off the street. Seizures of fentanyl rose from 29 in 2009 to 894 in 2014, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

There have also been calls for more harm-reduction policies. Advocates say safe injection sites and the antidote naloxone have proven to be highly effective interventi­ons.

“We have the tools,” said Werb. “But those are simply not available to the vast majority of people who need it.”

The Victoria deaths have renewed calls for a safe injection site on Vancouver Island. Meanwhile, B.C. is working to ensure naloxone kits are more accessible.

There are more than 90 sites across B.C. where people can obtain the kits and the training to use them, said Henry.

Naloxone still requires a prescripti­on, but Henry is optimistic a Health Canada review currently underway will result in naloxone being taken off the federal prescripti­on schedule in 2016.

Mark Bodie wants a co-ordinated effort from the provincial and federal government­s to fight the scourge of fentanyl. In the meantime, education and awareness are also key, said Bodie, who was recently filmed by a Dutch film crew, as well as Vancouver’s Odd Squad, for an anti-drug documentar­y that will be shown at elementary and high schools.

“We’re trying to get the word out,” he said. “We don’t want to shake our fists, cry and scream. We want a measured response.

“If we can honour our son by doing that, then that’s what we want to do.”

 ?? JASON PAYNE/PNG ?? Mark Bodie holds a photo of his 17-year-old son Jack, who died from a fentanyl-related overdose in August.
JASON PAYNE/PNG Mark Bodie holds a photo of his 17-year-old son Jack, who died from a fentanyl-related overdose in August.

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