THUNDER BAY – Fourteen fatal overdoses in July linked to suspected fentanyl use have led police to issue an urgent warning to the public.
It's staggering, said Det.-Insp John Fennell of the Thunder Bay Police Service, adding two of the deaths have occurred in the past 24 hours. Fennell said while the problem is widespread, some parts of Ontario appear to be more hard hit than others.
"In all of Northwestern Ontario, we're finding that it seems to be a little more concentrated in the north than in the south, and I think it's just because of the amount of money that drug dealers can make from our population, because they'll spend a little bit more for it," Fennell said. "The deaths seem to be a little more increased here. And yes, it's staggering here. It's bothersome. We're continuously trying to develop new strategies with how to deal with it and it's just overwhelming to us right now."
This month alone police have responded to at least 36 suspected drug overdoses, with about 39 per cent of the calls resulting in a suspected drug death. Fennell said it does take time for toxicology reports to be produced, which is why police can't say with absolute certainty that all the deaths are drug related.
But all signs point toward drug use.
"So far this year we've had 149 overdoses and about 48 of those are perceived to be or already known to be overdoses from fentanyl."
Fennell said the current investigation has not identified a specific narcotic that's responsible for the current fatality outbreak and warned those struggling with addiction to be aware that fentanyl could be cut into just about any street drug.
It doesn't take much, he added.
"If people are dependent on narcotics, and particularly in fentanyl, talk to loved ones. If you don't want to come forward to the police, get some help. The problem with the fentanyl is it takes a very small amount. A nanogram is about the size of a sugar crystal and three of those can be fatal. We're seeing overdoses in the hundreds. The message is please go and try to get some help," he said.
According to Health Canada, fentanyl is a potent opioid pain reliever that's 20 to 40 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.
When taken it provides a quick rush of euphoria, followed by a feeling of calm for up to two hours. It's inexpensive for dealers to produce and is routinely cut into other drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Other drugs can also be contaminated if dealers use the same surface and equipment that have been used for fentanyl. Overdoses are more likely if used in combination with alcohol or heroin.
Fennell said those who use drugs should remember not to use alone in case an overdose occurs and if needed, police are a resource for those who might be in trouble.
"We're here to help first and then we'll deal with the drugs after. We have the drug strategy (group) that will help as well, safe injection. We have situation tables that help people in need. We have shelter houses and we have the district health unit. We have a great deal of social assistance in the city, people just need to reach out."
Fennell said police are routinely taking drugs off the street and making arrests, but said as fast as they do, another dealer arrives to set up shop. He added many victims are reluctant to provide information about where they got the drugs for fear of reprisal from gang members and also not wanting to close off their drug supply line.
This story has been updated with comment from Thunder Bay Police.
THUNDER BAY POLICE SERVICE
The Thunder Bay Police Service is warning the public as the city appears to be facing an ongoing spike in overdose deaths linked to suspected fentanyl use.
Frontline officers have observed an apparent increase in suspected overdose cases recently, which has also been observed and publicized by other health and community agencies. In the last 24-hours police have been dispatched to five incidents involving suspected overdoses, at least two of which have been fatal.
In July police have been dispatched to 36 incidents involving suspected drug overdoses, of those 14 were fatal. This does not include other incidents of suspected drug overdoses that police were not dispatched to.
Unlike previous TBPS-issued community safety alerts about the increased prevalence of fatal drug overdoses, ongoing investigations into drug-trafficking activity has not identified a specific batch of narcotics that may be responsible for recent cases.
In addition, conversations with other law enforcement agencies within and outside of our region indicates the apparent and recent spike in suspected fatal overdoses is widespread.
If you are struggling with substance dependency, the Thunder Bay Police Service would like you to be aware that you may be more at risk of coming into contact with fatal and dangerous narcotics at this time. If you do use drugs, you are strongly encouraged to not use alone and utilize the “start low – go slow” strategy.
If you know of a loved one struggling with substance dependency, police encourage you to speak with them about this issue. For more information and resources please visit the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy online at www.thunderbay.ca/en/city-hall/thunder-bay-drug-strategy.aspx
If you are concerned about drugs being sold in your neighbourhood please call police at 684-1200 or submit tips anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222—8477, online at www.p3tips.com.
If you suffer from a substance dependency and have fears or anxiety about coming forward to police, we strongly encourage you to speak with family members or friends who may be able to come forward on your behalf.