Pubdate: Wed, 09 Aug 2017
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The London Free Press
Author: Dale Carruthers
Page: A1


Proactive public health warning, or scare tactic?

A heated debate has erupted after the London region's top public
health official warned that illegal drugs, including marijuana, could
be contaminated with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller already blamed
for hundreds of overdose deaths in Canada this year.

There's no shortage of skepticism about part of that warning,
involving pot, especially since there's never been a confirmed case of
fentanyl-laced marijuana in Canada.

Though multiple warnings that fentanyl-contaminated cannabis have
circulated in communities - even former B.C. premier Christy Clark
made the claim last year - both the RCMP and Canada's health minister
have said the rumours haven't been proven.

In London, the joint warning last week from police and three health
agencies, including the regional public health office, came after drug
users who self-reported taking only pot or heroin were given urine
tests that came back positive for fentanyl, a drug up to 100 times
more powerful than morphine.

Amid suggestions fentanyl-laced pot is more urban legend than public
health risk, London's top public health official and the city's police
chief both stood behind the warning Tuesday.

"We never said that we were 100 per cent positive that marijuana was
contaminated with fentanyl," said Dr. Christopher Mackie,
Middlesex-London's medical officer of health. "Street drugs have
inherent risks associated, and I think it's really dangerous when
people try to deny that."

At the heart of the debate is what prompted the controversial alert:
Drug addicts taking suboxone to treat opioid addiction, who may have
been motivated to lie about their illegal drug use to obtain take-home
doses of their medication. "Was it possible that we were given
inaccurate information? Yes, that is possible," Mackie said.

David Juurlink, a drug safety specialist at the University of Toronto,
said he's never heard of fentanyl added to marijuana.

"I'm not sure why one would lace cannabis with fentanyl," said the
head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health
Sciences Centre.

Drug dealers will add fentanyl to substances like methamphetamine,
cocaine, heroin and opioid pills because it's a cost-effective way to
increase the drugs' potency, Juurlink said. "It's a financial
decision," he said.

This isn't the first time Canadian officials have sounded the alarm on
fentanyl-laced marijuana.

The RCMP issued a warning last fall, saying they believed marijuana
contaminated with fentanyl was being sold in Masset, B.C.

But the warning was based solely on concerns from community members
and no fentanyl-laced pot had been seized.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott set the record straight in March
after a Conservative MP raised concerns about fentanyl and pot being

"In fact, there is zero evidence. Very important that everyone
understands that - and we have confirmed this with chiefs of police,
law enforcement officials across this country - there is zero
documented evidence that ever in this country cannabis has been found
laced with fentanyl," Philpott said at the time. "So it's very
important that we make sure that that message is clear."

London police haven't seized any marijuana containing fentanyl, but
the city's police chief backs up the warning by the Middlesex-London
Health Unit, saying illegal drugs always carry risks.

"You think you are getting one drug, but there is no guarantee that it
doesn't contain other more dangerous substances," Chief John Pare
wrote in an email.

"The London police service supports the (warning) from the
(Middlesex-London) Health Unit for the purposes of drug awareness
education and public safety."

MPP Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative health critic at Queen's
Park, defended the health unit's warning, saying it's better to err on
the side of caution.

"We are in an opioid crisis and fentanyl is killing quite a few
people," the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP said, adding Ontario has been
slow to react to the problem.

Mackie warned that drug contamination poses a threat to marijuana
users, citing reports showing pot was tainted with pesticides and fungus.

"The idea that marijuana is somehow special . . . that there couldn't
possibly be anything dangerous in this sacred herb, is really
unjustifiable," said Mackie, who previously suggested pot users keep
the antioverdose medication naloxone handy.

The recommendation drew criticism from marijuana users who accused
Mackie of demonizing cannabis, the most commonly taken illegal drug in

"I understand why people think we may have overreacted here," Mackie
said. "I think there's also a dramatic overreaction among people who
have this really emotional attachment to the drugs they use - that's
probably . . . more dangerous."
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