Pubdate: Wed, 15 Jun 2016
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2016 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Justine Hunter
Page: S1


The manufacturing equipment required to produce fentanyl-laced drugs
for the street isn't much to look at: A tabletop pill press and a
kitchen blender are enough to process an online order of opioids. The
set-up fits easily inside a small utility trailer and can churn out
18,000 counterfeit Oxycontin tablets in one hour.

But the drugs produced in these tiny, mobile labs also pose a risk to
police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency crews. A couple
of grains, which can be absorbed on skin contact, can be lethal.

At a workshop for first responders in Victoria on Tuesday, police
demonstrated the equipment used to produce pharmaceutical-grade
tablets that mimic prescription Oxycontin, and explained the hazards.

"There have been close calls right across North America," said Staff
Sergeant Conor King of the Victoria Police Department, an organizer of
the Justice Institute of British Columbia conference. "Because
fentanyl is so lethal in such small doses - and in powder form can be
distributed into the atmosphere - a first responder who walks into a
fentanyl laboratory could inadvertently breathe in the fentanyl."

It can also be absorbed through the skin by touching something that is
contaminated. "A very small dose, in the neighbourhood of two
milligrams, is considered lethal," Staff Sgt. King said.

With ever-stronger synthetic opioids arriving in the country, the risk
to drug users is growing, but the shift also means those attending a
crime scene or assisting an individual who is overdosing face
increasing danger.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation has found local traffickers can
easily order the highly potent, low-cost drug online and have
guaranteed shipment to Canada. It is then cut into street drugs such
as heroin and oxycodone to make them go further and maximize profits.

The overdose death toll across Canada due to fentanyl is rising at an
alarming rate - in British Columbia, drug overdoses are now the
leading cause of unnatural death in the province, outpacing fatalities
from vehicle crashes. Fentanyl has been detected in more than half of
the overdose deaths so far this year.

Corporal Eric Boechler, with the RCMP's federal clandestine lab
enforcement and response team, told the conference a dozen variations
of fentanyl have been tracked in Canada.

Although there is no clinical analysis of the strength of the
different variants, he said, "one of the scarier ones" now arriving in
Canada is carfentanyl, which is believed to be as much as 6,000 times
more potent than morphine. (Health Canada says more research is needed
to determine the potency of such drugs, which are frequently obtained
from unregulated labs overseas.)

Cpl. Boechler demonstrated how the pills are manufactured, and how
easy it is for uneven distribution of the opioid to occur in whatever
cutting agent is used as the base for the pill. Some pills end up with
"hot spots" containing more of the opioid than intended.

"When I hear in the media there has been a huge amount of overdoses in
one geographical area in a short period of time, I think to myself
there was negligent mixing, with hot spots. Or maybe that drug
trafficker had ordered fentanyl online but was supplied with a more
potent, toxic analog. … The entire batch could be deadly."

British Columbia's top health officer has declared a health emergency
in order to more accurately track drug overdoses, in the hopes that
officials can more quickly issue warnings when bad batches of drugs
appear on the street.

The coroner's office has tallied 308 illicit drug overdose deaths from
January through May of this year, compared with 176 deaths in the same
period last year.

"This is a crisis situation as far as the number of overdose
fatalities," Staff Sgt. King said. "We are responding to this as we
would to a disease, with law enforcement working hand in hand with the
medical community because so many citizens are dying so rapidly."

Police are asking lawmakers to help curb distribution by banning the
sale and possession of pill presses in Canada, he said.
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