It’s an elephant tranquilizer, and it can kill you.
The Nelson Police Department recently busted a man for possession, and after sending away his faux oxycodone tablets to Health Canada they were informed the batch contained carfentanil.
“I was extremely upset when I saw that. I’ve been reading about it North America-wide, hearing about it in major cities, but I didn’t expect to see it in Nelson this fast,” detective David Laing told the Star.
The deadly synthetic opioid is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, the primary drug responsible for nearly 1,000 B.C. overdose deaths in 2016. Chief Paul Burkart has named addressing this issue as the department’s number-one priority, holding numerous community meetings on the subject.
But this is something new.
“This wasn’t a trafficking charge, it was possession. And we don’t know if it was a one-off, if he got the carfentanil from someone travelling through to Vancouver or if it’s localized — I sure hope not — but we just don’t know the circumstances,” Laing said.
“The investigation is ongoing.”
That means there could be other people with carfentanil in their possession locally, and there currently is no way to test for it without destroying the drugs themselves. And since microscopic grains are enough to stop someone’s heart, Laing is terrified that pretty soon they’re going to be seeing body bags.
“It’s such a new thing I’m not pretending I’m some guru or expert on it,” he said.
“But in theory, if you think about three little granules, the rest of the pill could be fine and nothing would show up in testing, but there could be these specks that could kill you. When you see the tiny amount it takes to be fatal, you think, how do you test for that?”
And the fact is there are people in Nelson using these drugs, and they’re not going to stop any time soon. So he’s mulling the department’s role in the ongoing crisis as they transition from an enforcement-based strategy to a multi-pronged, multi-agency harm reduction one.
“It’s easy for me to say I’m not going to do drugs. I’m not an addict, I’m not involved in a situation where my life has spiralled out of control and I’m on opioids. You see the challenges people face.”
So is he panicking?
“Panic never really helps anything. The way I look at it, the standard police officer line of ‘don’t do drugs’ just isn’t effective. But really, there’s only so much the health authorities or the police can do for you. If there are products out there that are so deadly, maybe this is a time for you to think, ‘maybe this is the right time to get treatment.’”
And thanks to the Nelson Street Outreach program, that’s starting to happen. Laing praised Ryall Giuliano, Bernadette White and Jeremy Kelly for the work they’re doing with locally vulnerable people, saying they’ve been serving as a “buffer” or “middle man” for the cops.
“We’re starting to see the results of education and public awareness, and the street outreach workers reaching out to people to give help where it’s needed. The government is never going to do enough, we’re always going to be disappointed with them, but we have to start asking ourselves how can we do our own thing, in our own community?”
And police are only one part of the solution.
“Opioid overdoses and use is something that’s huge. To arrest people and put them in jail is totally ineffective. Police should always be part of a multi-pronged approach. We’re getting better in terms of trying to work with the agencies, we work well with Interior Health and ANKORS and we’re acknowledging we can’t do this on our own.”
One of the issues is mental illness.
“We can’t sit back and say ‘common sense.’ It doesn’t work that way if you’re suffering from mental health struggles and you’re on the periphery of society.”
And he doesn’t get, on a personal level, why dealers would sell these types of substances.
“Speaking as a layman and a citizen, I don’t see why a drug dealer would want to sell something that risky to your clients. If I find out about it, I’m going to go for an attempted murder charge or whatever, I’ll go after you with every law in the book. If you’re knowingly selling carfentanil, I think we’re going to take a pretty hard stance.”
The way he sees it: “You’re putting everyone at risk.”
“I don’t want to use words like ‘hopeless’ but geez. It was stressful enough with fentanyl, which of course is dangerous but at least it’s detectable. You throw something in that can kill you with three grains and I think ‘when is it going to stop?’”
And naloxone might not be enough to stop an overdose. According to Interior Health, carfentanil overdoses “require larger quantities of naloxone and are more likely to be lethal.”
And though he thinks it’s a good idea that local businesses have naloxone and residents get trained on how to use it, he thinks that’s problematic.
“That’s a challenging solution too. Are we going to have it so everyone’s carrying a kit around? It goes into the bigger picture, and speaking as a citizen I’m not keen on living in a society where it’s that open, that people can use it and feel comfortable that they can overdose and the public will come save them.”
He said it’s “a lot of pressure” for a typical person to have to intervene in an overdose situation, and it can be traumatizing.
“Some people may not want to have that responsibility. It’s a horrible scene, foam coming out of the mouth and everything, and it can be really traumatic. So it’s a little selfish to expect society to always be on the ready. Of course it’s our responsibility but it’s different than an elderly person having a heart attack.”
And Laing is concerned not just about current users, but also about teenagers and recreational users who may be exposed to carfentanil by mistake.
“Being a parent, you know kids don’t listen to you. If I go and lecture them on the dangers, it’s just like marijuana, and I’ve accepted even though you might have profound proof and a good reason not to be doing something, it’s challenging to get kids to listen.”
He said, “some people are going to try anything.”
“It’s like when you go to a party and there’s a huge diving board. Some guy, he has a couple beers and decides to jump off it even though he doesn’t know how deep the water is. You might be the cautious guy, or the middle-of-the-road guy who’s going to check the depth, but then there’s the risk-takers.”
So what does he tell kids?
“You don’t want to scare them and say they’re going to die from taking pills, but you do want to tell them there’s potential. I don’t know how to get kids from 14 to 25 to avoid taking drugs of any type, how do you stop that?”
So far there has been one Kootenay overdose death, in January, and Laing hopes they can intervene before more people die. But is it going to take more deaths to make people listen?
“As a parent you have to sit down, build a strong relationship, and explain, ‘this is different now, this is fatal.’ You want to have a dialogue.”