B.C. and Alberta authorities detecting fentanyl's more dangerous cousin carfentanil with increasing frequency

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      There’s increasing evidence that Western Canada is entering a more dangerous phase of its overdose epidemic.

      Yesterday (June 25), the Calgary Herald reported that during the first five months of 2017, Alberta saw 34 fatal overdoses linked to carfentanil. The newspaper notes that is a higher number of deaths involving the deadly tranquilizer than Alberta recorded during all of 2016.

      Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid similar to the better-known drug fentanyl, but it is significantly more toxic. It is administered legally to large animals such as elephants but it is not prescribed to humans.

      Illicit carfentanil was first confirmed in Vancouver in November 2016, when it was found near the body of an overdose victim in East Vancouver.

      Before that, in August 2016, Canadian border officials seized one kilogram of the drug at Vancouver International Airport. It was caught in transit, on its way from China to Calgary.

      More recently, on June 23, the City of Vancouver issued a media release warning that carfentanil is turning up in an increasing number of urine tests.

      It states that of LifeLabs urine tests that were positive for fentanyl, carfentanil was found in 21 percent of them.

      That’s up from eight percent that LifeLabs recorded for tests conducted during February and March.

      The city describes the increased presence of carfentanil as indicative of “an extreme risk to the public”.

      "In the 14 months since being declared a public health emergency, the B.C. government has failed to make a clear commitment to halt the fentanyl crisis and save hundreds of people from preventable drug overdose deaths," said Mayor Gregor Robertson quoted in that release.

      Testing for carfentanil, a synthetic analog, is relatively complicated. B.C. did not have the capacity to detect the drug in fluid samples until earlier this year. Statistics for overdoses involving carfentanil, therefore, remain limited.

      In December 2016, the Straight published an analysis of 911 calls placed from the 100 block of East Hastings Street. It appeared to show that carfentanil had entered the Downtown Eastside’s drug supply in August or September of that year.

      From January to September—a period by which time fentanyl was already identified as a major problem—the number of 911 calls from that area remained relatively stable, remaining under 40 per month (with the exception of June).

      Then, in September, the number of overdose calls jumped to 74. Then to 93 in October and to 155 in November.

      A sample of 911 calls placed from the 100 block of East Hastings Street over the course of 2016 reveals a sharp increase in overdose emergencies beginning in late-August.

      For that story, Laura Shaver, then the president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, told the Straight that residents of the Downtown Eastside noticed anecdotal reports that match those statistics.

      “We’ve seen it over the last couple months; it has gotten really scary,” she told the Straight. “It’s possible that carfentanil is what it is.”

      During the first four months of 2017, 488 people in British Columbia died of an illicit drug overdose. That puts the province on track for more than 1,450 deaths by the end of this year.

      In 2016, there were 935 fatal overdoses in B.C. The year before, there were 518 and in 2014, there were 368. From 2001 to 2010, B.C. saw an average of 204 fatal overdoses per year.

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