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Fentanyl deaths on the rise in Ontario: coroner

This undated photo provided by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office shows fentanyl pills.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ontario's fentanyl crisis is getting worse, the province's chief coroner says, even as police and health officials work to keep the powerful opioid from making further incursions into central Canada.

At least 201 people died accidentally with fentanyl in their systems last year, Ontario chief coroner Dirk Huyer said on Wednesday. Of those, 165 died as a direct result of the drug, which is up to 100 times more toxic than morphine.

That represents close to double the number of fentanyl deaths the province saw in 2010, and a small increase over 2014.

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Still, Dr. Huyer stressed that Ontario's epidemic is less rampant than western Canada's. British Columbia declared a public health emergency in April after a dramatic surge in opioid overdose deaths, many involving fentanyl. In August, Vancouver police said they dealt with 16 fentanyl overdoses in one night.

In Alberta, fentanyl was involved in 193 accidental deaths between the beginning of 2016 and the end of October.

"Year over year, what we are seeing is a gradual increase, and it's been continued, but not anywhere close to the dramatic change we've seen in B.C.," said Dr. Huyer.

Still, the growth of fentanyl abuse in Ontario has prompted the provincial government to take action in recent months. In July, Ontario announced that it would stop covering high-dose opioid medication under its public drug plans as of January, a move aimed at curbing the abuse and illegal sale of addictive prescription painkillers.

In June, the province made the opiod overdose antidote Naloxone available without a prescription, after facing heat for withholding access to it.

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The extreme concentration and power of fentanyl, which makes it so deadly, has also made the drug highly lucrative for organized crime, said Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner. New, deadlier strains of opioid, such as carfentanil – which can be fatal in quantities as small as a grain of salt – have both increased the danger and the profitability of such drugs, he noted.

While the diversion onto the black market of prescription fentanyl has fueled Ontario's epidemic, synthetic fentanyl made for street sale is a growing threat, Mr. Taverner said. "Hot spots" in fentanyl pills, containing higher concentrations of the drug, can be especially fatal.

To prevent B.C.'s "tidal wave" of opioid fatalities from landing in Ontario, it's important to follow the province's lead in treating fentanyl as a public health crisis, said Waterloo Regional Police chief Bryan Larkin.

"It makes no good sense to reinvent the wheel," he said.

The two-day training session, organized by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, is focused on the "health and public safety challenges" posed by fentanyl, rather than enforcement concerns.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this epidemic," Mr. Larkin said.

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With reports from The Canadian Press

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