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Hamilton police and the city are taking unprecedented steps to protect drug users from a more powerful and lethal batch of heroin in Hamilton – even providing an amnesty on criminal charges to anyone who turns over drugs to the police.

It's all part of a move towards harm reduction strategies that stress safety over criminalization, officials say. That includes delivering new overdose prevention kits right to users' doors, not laying criminal charges and even picking up illicit drugs from the people who use them in an attempt to figure out just what is killing people.

“This can occur both at the police station or we will attend to pick them up,” said deputy police chief Eric Girt at a news conference Thursday.

"We want people to be safe and seek medical help. If they even have apprehension about phoning us because they think of prosecution – we’d prefer that they live, and that they get that medical treatment.”

'We will bring the kit to the user and we will bring the training to the user if you give us a call.' - Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, medical officer of health

Police and public health officials sounded the alarm this month because of a new, more lethal kind of heroin on the streets — but they will not provide an actual number of deaths or overdoses that have happened as a result of it. Regional coroner Dr. Jack Stanborough has said his office is looking at three deaths as possibly related.

Police warned the public two weeks ago about a "potentially fatal” grade of the drug likely responsible for a spike in heroin overdoses in the city. When the announcement was made, there had been eight non-fatal overdoses over a two-day period in Hamilton.

Medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson says public health nurses throughout the city are now providing new overdose prevention kits and training for people who need them. It has distributed about 50 of the kits containing a drug called Naloxone to drug users.

“We will bring the kit to the user and we will bring the training to the user if you give us a call at 905-528-5894,” she said.

Mystery drug wreaking havoc

While a more dangerous version of the drug is definitely being used in the city, officials don’t know exactly what’s in it. A former opioid user told CBC Hamilton that users are mixing or cutting heroin with the powerful prescription painkiller fentanyl – a drug that was mentioned numerous times at Thursday’s news conference.

“One of the things that has recently emerged is fentanyl – it has a higher potency,” Girt said. “We don’t know what the compositions are [in this situation, or] what’s been mixed with it. Obviously there’s an income factor here for traffickers where they will use whatever substance to increase the quantity and then sell it to the consumer.”

“Historically, we know dealers have used things like rat poison, baking soda … they’re not particularly interested in quality control.”

This also marks the city’s first real test for harm reduction measures like the overdose prevention kit program

“We certainly know they’re being used,” Richardson said.

Public health is also providing advice for users on how to minimize the risk if they decide to continue to do drugs. It includes using smaller doses and not taking drugs alone.

Preventing overdoses

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that was first developed in the 1960s. When injected into a person who is overdosing, it can reverse the effects of drugs like heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl long enough to get them to hospital. Doing so keeps the user breathing, but sends them into a harsh withdrawal. Even with the kits, Richardson said it is important to seek medical attention, since the withdrawal might prompt a user to take more drugs.

Collecting information on just how many overdoses have recently taken place in the city has been difficult, Richardson says. “Across the province with the ministry of health and long term care, they tried to put in a data-tracking program for the last year,” she said. “We’re just not finding that it’s giving us a very good source of data to say when something is going on.”

Other factors are working against health-care officials, too. In many cases, dealers may advertise heroin mixed with a drug like fentanyl as a better high — when it's actually more dangerous. “We’re kind of at cross purposes when it comes to these things," Richardson said.

"What some people might think is a good thing about a drug is actually something that can be very dangerous and potentially lethal."