An Edmonton-based group called the Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society says it wants to raise awareness about the deadly opioid epidemic, which has cost the lives of 143 Albertans in the last three months alone.

But those leading the non-profit fundraising group admit they have no background in health or addictions, leading some critics to question if the organization is equipped to take on the job.

Representatives of the society say they are tackling a health crisis that has been ignored by others.

"I didn't really know what was going on, because I don't watch a lot of news," said Shane Schnell, who told CBC he would be named as the organization's chief operating officer this week.

"When I started researching it, I had to stop. Because I was so amazed at the level of depth that this drug has gone into our communities."

Schnell said he spent years working in sales before an acquaintance approached him to work with the Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society. The idea of collaborating with such a group appealed to him, he said.

Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society

The Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society can be found at (Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society)

Teryn Nutley, listed as the organization's director in the group's application to form a society, said he wanted to establish the society because "nobody was doing anything about the cause" of the opioid crisis.

"The board of directors, a lot of people we know personally, had family members, or their kids had overdosed," Nutley said. "So we just wanted to get it out there, and get (drug testing) strips out there and get everything in place to prevent as many overdoses as possible."

It's unclear who currently sits on the group's board of directors, or whether any members have been directly affected by the opioid epidemic.

The society has been canvassing Edmonton neighbourhoods, soliciting $20 donations for a box of cookies or a calendar, with an information flyer attached.

The group said it does drug awareness education and prevention, and has plans to open a recovery facility or a community centre. It also said that distributing naloxone, the nasal spray used to reverse an overdose, is another part of its prevention program.

Schnell said the group is not a federally registered charity that can issue receipts for tax purposes. But it is registered as a society that has charitable status provincially, which means it is authorized to do fundraising on the doorstep, something Service Alberta confirms.

"We can spend 100 per cent of everything we make on our programs," Schnell said. "We keep our overhead low, our profit high, and we use all that profit to pay for (drug testing) strips."

Schnell said his paycheque is linked directly to donations.

"The only way (staff) get paid in this charity is to raise awareness. Even as the chief operating officer, if I want pay from this charity, I have to go out and produce donations for the charity."

'They're opaque at best'

Some are skeptical of the group's claims.

Last year, Tim James lost his 19-year-old daughter, Kaileah, in a drug overdose.

After the Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society knocked on a family member's door, James decided to look into the organization. He had never heard of the group, despite his family's advocacy work.

"Everything they were saying about their objectives was not definable," James said. "They're opaque at best. I'm angry with the registries office for letting this group operate as a non-profit.

'Have they got qualified staff? Do they know the first thing about it? We know more than most people, and we don't know nearly enough.' - Tim James, lost his 19-year-old daughter in an accidental drug overdose

"It's basically to create awareness of opioid addiction, work to prevent opioid addiction. But how? Have they got qualified staff? Do they know the first thing about it? We know more than most people, and we don't know nearly enough."

Application to Incorporate

The Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society incorporated as a society in June 2017. (Government of Alberta )

Brett Baumback, an Edmonton pharmacist, was at a family dinner when someone from the society came to the door.

"My impression was the person who was at the door didn't know a whole lot," he recalled. "They referred to naloxone as an antibiotic for fentanyl. Some of the things raised a red flag for me."

Baumback works with pharmacy patients who are addicted to opioids, and distributes naloxone kits. The drug is an antidote used to reverse an opioid overdose.

"Everybody can stand to learn a bit about what's going on. I wouldn't criticize them for not being experts. But hopefully, if they're trying to get involved … they're consulting experts and getting the information they need and not disseminating information that's incorrect."

In a statement, Service Alberta said that charitable organizations can knock on peoples' doors to fundraise, but cannot misrepresent who they are or why they are there. People with concerns can contact the government's consumer protection line.

Welcomes questions

Meanwhile, Schnell said he welcomes questions about the group and its activities.

"I encourage the inquiries," he said. "I encourage people to check out and see if we're legitimate. I encourage people to take five minutes and ask some questions. They will find out that we are legal. We are legitimate. We are a real charity. And we have real programs."

take-home naloxone kit

The Alberta government started providing free take-home naloxone kits in 2016. (Government of Alberta)

The society offers to send people Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose. Schnell said the product is sent to people free of charge.

But on the society website, the cost of the nasal spray is listed at $120 and includes a credit card payment form. According to the website, those who are unable to pay can contact the organization.

naloxone nasal spray

The Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society offers to send out nasal naloxone spray through the mail. (Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society)

Alberta Health said it has distributed 34,000 injectable naloxone kits for free since its program started last year.

The Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society said it is fundraising to open a halfway house for young people with addictions. The group said the home will "provide a safe and sober environment with overnight accommodation for at-risk youth."

Nutley said the non-profit's biggest challenge is securing financing for the facility. He couldn't say how on-going operations will be funded, though he was confident the funding would "pull together in the long-run." 

Asked who would run the facility, Nutley said, "There's one lady who works with us, who has a bunch of experience running a house. So she's willing to run it."

Asked if the group is equipped to run such a facility, he said:

'At the end of the day, I don't really care how we're equipped to do it, the fact of the matter is there's people dying and there's nobody doing anything about it.' - Teryn Nutley, Canadian Fentanyl Prevention Society

"At the end of the day, I don't really care how we're equipped to do it. The fact of the matter is there's people dying and there's nobody doing anything about it. There's nothing happening. So if we have to learn how to do it, we're going to learn how to do it."

Schnell said he is unsure if the organization should focus on opening a community centre or a rehabilitation facility. He noted the difficulty in securing funding for the project, suggesting the group will post an ad for a "venture partner."

"The sense I'm feeling is the gap from the street level to getting into a program," Schnell said. "I was watching a few documentaries, and you have to be sober off fentanyl for five days. This drug is so powerful, people can't go six hours without it … they can't make five days. And they can't get into a program.

"We're going to do whatever we need to do. I think the gap is from getting people that are addicted into the services and into a position where they can get help."

In the short-term, the group continues to hand out strips that can be used to test for the presence of fentanyl in drugs. It also pays a woman from another charity to do public speaking engagements at schools in Calgary.

Schnell said he'd like to see the society continue to grow.

"We're growing daily. There's a lot of support in a lot of areas and a lot of affected people," he said.

The group planned by the end of this week to launch a new website, Schnell said.

They plan to post pictures of their various licences, and registration and incorporation documents, he said, "so it's very clear and open for anyone who wants to see it."