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The Saskatoon police did something highly unusual on March 11. They gave out a drug dealer’s phone number.

They weren’t recommending his services. They were warning his customers.

“If you have purchased cocaine from a dealer which goes by the name ‘Lil Joe,’ ‘Joe Bro,’ or have made contact with the dealer with the cellular number 306-881-7300,” the force wrote in a press release, “the dosage of cocaine you have purchased might be laced with fentanyl and has the possibility of being a lethal dose.”

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This was not an idle warning. In the previous 36 hours, first responders had been finding overdosed drug users all over the city. Two had died and several more were in hospital.

Police weren’t looking to press charges against the dealers’ customers. They just wanted to stop the poisoning.

Poisoning is the apt way to describe what is happening to Canada’s illicit drug users right now. Across the country, what hit Saskatoon is becoming common. Dealers are cutting the incredibly powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl into other drugs for bigger profits, and dosing unwitting users with a substance that can be fatal in tiny amounts.

In 2016, there were almost 3,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada – about half of them involving fentanyl or its analogues, like the even more powerful carfentanil.

At that level, the death toll was higher than it was during the height of the AIDS epidemic in Canada.

Last year, it got worse. The federal government believes more than 4,000 people died from opioids in 2017. As of June, three-quarters of the deaths involved fentanyl.

The crisis doesn’t get the attention it demands, in part because hard-drug users are scorned by society and thought to be taking their lives in their hands anyway. A similar callousness allowed AIDS to scythe through North America’s gay community for years before governments acted.

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The federal government is acting on opioids. In this year’s budget, the Liberals earmarked about $230-million over five years to fight the crisis.

But it can do more. In February, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale convened a summit on guns and gangs to signal the government’s seriousness about the growing problem of gang-related shootings. In 2016, there were 223 gun homicides in Canada – less than one-tenth the number of opioid overdose deaths that year.

It’s time for a federal summit on opioids, with a focus on fentanyl poisoning, chaired jointly by the Public Safety and Health ministers. It would signal seriousness and draw attention to a crisis that too often plays out in the shadows. It would also bring together public health and law enforcement communities, which have a history of mutual mistrust on this issue, in order to find creative solutions to the problem.

As the Saskatoon police have learned, this crisis calls for desperate measures.

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