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The RCMP has already observed a “heightened presence” of fentanyl in the illicit market in Manitoba.

The Manitoba government is tackling opioid drug abuse in response to a growing number of fatal overdoses in British Columbia and Alberta linked to bootleg fentanyl.

The government announced on Wednesday that it has created a task force to address the illegal use of fentanyl. Manitoba has not experienced the same problems as Western Canada, where drug overdose deaths are linked to synthetic versions of the prescription painkiller manufactured in clandestine labs.

"The wave of fentanyl hasn't really hit the province yet, and we want to keep it that way," Manitoba Attorney-General Gord Mackintosh said in an interview.

Officials in Manitoba are worried that it might be just a matter of time before the illegal consumption of fentanyl expands eastward to the province in a big way. The RCMP has already observed a "heightened presence" of fentanyl in the illicit market in Manitoba, Chief Superintendent Scott Kolody, officer in charge of criminal operations in the province, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

"Fentanyl is not just a big-city problem," he said. "It can be found in small towns and remote centres across the province."

Between 2009 and 2014, fentanyl was determined to be either a cause or contributing cause in 655 drug overdose deaths in Canada – an average of one every three days.

In British Columbia, one of the hardest-hit provinces, fentanyl was detected in more than a third of fatal illicit-drug overdoses in the past year. Deaths linked to fentanyl have also increased in Alberta, where the drug was connected to more than 200 deaths in the past year.

The toll in Manitoba, by comparison, has been much smaller. Preliminary figures show that the number of fatal overdoses linked to fentanyl doubled to 29 in 2015, compared with earlier years.

The goal of the task force, which is made up of members from several professions – including health care, law enforcement and regulatory colleges for physicians and pharmacists – is to educate the public about the risks associated with a drug that is much more potent than heroin or morphine.

The task force will also set up surveillance systems to help members quickly identify where drugs are being trafficked or abused. A recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal highlights the lack of timely and accurate information on fatal opioid overdoses.

Joss Reimer, medical officer of health for Manitoba, said task-force members need to have a better idea of where overdoses are happening. Ideally, she said, the province would have a central repository containing such statistics as hospital admissions, emergency department visits and seizures by police to help monitor fentanyl overdoses.

"Surveillance is essential to any health program because otherwise we don't know where the main burden of illness is and how to target our resources," Dr. Reimer said.

The task force is modelled on a similar initiative in Manitoba back in 2005, when the "scourge" of crystal meth was working its way toward Manitoba from Western Canada and the United States, Mr. Mackintosh said.

He would like to see the federal government also play a role in addressing the fentanyl problem. He said the task force will call on Ottawa to bolster its measures to more effectively intercept fentanyl smuggled into Canada from labs in other countries, including China.

In addition to the public awareness campaign, the Manitoba government announced that it is developing a program to distribute naloxone to injection and other high-risk opioid users through the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Naloxone is a drug used to reverse the effects of opioids, preventing accidental and potentially fatal overdoses.