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Fentanyl pills are often sold on the street as fake Oxycontin.

The Canadian Press

One would think that an outbreak of hundreds of deaths related to a single cause would catch the eye of federal politicians. But Ottawa has remained surprisingly mute about fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is killing people by the score.

A report released Tuesday says fentanyl was the leading or contributing cause of death in 655 fatal overdoses between 2009 and 2014 – an average of one death every three days.

In British Columbia, the annual number of deaths has increased by a factor of seven, going from 13 in 2012 to 90 in 2014. In Alberta, the increase is twenty-fold, from six in 2011 to 120 last year. In Ontario, fentanyl was implicated in 111 deaths in 2013, up from 63 in 2009, according to the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use. The CCENDU's report is the first to look at fentanyl-related deaths on a national scale.

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The killing continues apace in 2015. At least 60 people have fatally overdosed on fentanyl in B.C. this year. Last weekend, Vancouver police reported 16 fentanyl-related overdoses, including six in one hour on Sunday (there were, fortunately, no deaths in those cases).

fentanyl is a prescription painkiller that is 100 times more powerful than morphine. It comes in patch form; abusers cut up the patches and eat the pieces, or scrape out the medication and smoke or inject it. But because fentanyl is so powerful, the difference between getting high and dying from an overdose can be measured in amounts as small as a grain of salt.

fentanyl has also flooded the illegal drug market, either in the form of pills that are misleadingly sold as Oxycontin, an over-prescribed opioid painkiller that is abused by addicts and recreational drug users, or as filler in cocaine and heroin. Habitual drug users and poorly-informed partiers don't know what they're getting into.

Police forces and provincial health officials have sounded the alarm, but now it's time for Ottawa to raise its voice. The federal government should issue a country-wide alert, via the RCMP or Health Canada, making Canadians aware of the extreme dangers of fentanyl and the fact that it is being used in illegal street drugs that go by other names. Having Ottawa deliver the message will give it its biggest impact and have the best chance of saving lives.

From there, the federal government can discuss other anti-drug strategies with the provinces. But to remain silent in the face of so many deaths is unacceptable.

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