A powerful animal tranquilizer that has resulted in a spate of overdose deaths in Alberta and the United States has been detected for the first time in Ontario.
Health Canada has confirmed that drugs seized last month in two cities in Southwestern Ontario contain carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants. The drug, which can be fatal in quantities as small as a grain of salt, is about 10,000 times more potent than morphine and has no known safe application for human use.
The Waterloo Region Integrated Drugs Strategy, a task force made up of police and public health officials that tracks overdoses, announced the results of the lab tests on Tuesday.
Police in Waterloo Region asked Health Canada to test the drugs after paramedics responded to two separate drug-overdose calls days apart, one in Cambridge and the other in Kitchener. The victims, both of whom survived, had consumed counterfeit pills crafted to resemble OxyContin, a popular prescription opioid until it was pulled from the market in Canada in March, 2012.
Health Canada's labs receive more than 110,000 samples a year and normally take 60 days to turn around results. But in this case, a rush request, Health Canada produced the results on Dec. 2 after receiving the samples on Nov. 17 and 28, a spokeswoman said.
While Waterloo Region and a handful of other communities in Ontario have seen an influx of illicit fentanyl, the detection of carfentanil in the province marks a "significant shift" in the drug culture, Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin said.
"The troubling thing with carfentanil is the potency," Chief Larkin said in an interview. "Fentanyl is dangerous and carfentanil is super dangerous."
Many parts of Canada are already dealing with a surge in overdose deaths linked to the painkiller fentanyl. A Globe and Mail investigation found that most of Canada's illicit fentanyl supply is manufactured in China, bought online, smuggled into the country and then cut into a range of street drugs.
Carfentanil poses new challenges for policy makers in Canada, who are already playing catch-up with the United States on the opioid crisis. Canada does not have the basic tools to monitor a leading cause of accidental deaths – in contrast to the United States, there is no national system tracking fatal opioid overdoses.
In Alberta, carfentanil has been linked to 14 deaths between September and the end of November, the provincial government announced this week. "Albertans need to know that carfentanil is here … and that it's an extremely dangerous and deadly opioid," said acting chief medical officer of health Karen Grimsrud. Police in Vancouver also attributed a fatal overdose for the first time last month to the highly toxic drug.
Carfentanil turned up for the first time in Winnipeg in September, when police officers raided a hotel room and seized drugs with a street value of $30,000. That bust followed the Canada Border Services Agency intercepting two separate shipments of carfentanil, including a package containing just more than a kilogram of the white powder, from the Vancouver international mail centre. The package, declared as printer accessories, originated in China and was destined for a residential address in Calgary.
Most provinces do not yet have the tools to monitor the number of overdose deaths due to carfentanil. According to Dr. Grimsrud, the Alberta Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is one of only a small number of toxicology laboratories in Canada that is able to positively identify carfentanil in human blood.
The B.C. Coroners Service is hoping to be able to carry out such testing by the end of January. In the meantime, the Coroners Service is examining a handful of cases where carfentanil is potentially suspected, spokeswoman Barb McLintock said.
In Ontario, the Centre of Forensic Sciences has developed the ability to identify the presence of carfentanil in overdose deaths and will begin testing for this drug shortly, Health Ministry spokesman David Jensen said.