A new report suggests there is more illicit fentanyl on the streets of Waterloo region than ever before and police say a flood of cheap bootleg pharmaceuticals in the area's illicit drug market is to blame.
The report, presented to the Waterloo Regional Police Services board Wednesday, said seizures of the powerful opioid by front line police officers grew from just over two grams in 2015 to 624 g last year.
The numbers are a sobering reality as governments at all levels struggle to control the spread of a killer drug that some want declared a public health emergency.
Local police lay the blame for the sharp uptick in fentanyl seizures on a recent surge of fake pharmaceuticals that have inundated the region's black market drug trade.
Fentanyl abuse has evolved
"Fentanyl abuse first involved prescription fentanyl patches," the report states. "Its community impact increased significantly with the more recent proliferation of a cheaper and more easily accessible 'bootleg' form."
The drug is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and as little as two milligrams of the drug in its pure form, which is as small as four grains of salt, can kill an adult.
The problem affects chronic drug users who are turning to fentanyl, according to police, in search of a more powerful high.
"Long term drug users who have built a tolerance to lower level street drugs are now turning to fentanyl for an increased 'high,'" the report said.
Hidden in other drugs
"More concerning is the practice of drug dealers to add fentanyl to other illicit drugs yet not identifying its presence."
The report suggested the influx of fentanyl can also be seen through the number of emergency calls for opioid overdoses, which have also risen sharply over the same period.
Waterloo Regional Police said the number of opioid-related overdose calls to Waterloo Regional Paramedic Services grew from roughly 200 in 2015 to more than 400 last year.
There were 595 overdose deaths in Waterloo region last year, of which 54 were direct result of fentanyl overdose, the report said.
Fentanyl linked to increased deaths
While police are drawing links between the increase rate of overdose deaths in the region and influx of cheap, mass produced fake pharmaceutical fentanyl tablets, police say there is not enough evidence to draw a direct correlation.
"Overdose deaths are also on the rise but it is difficult to attribute them to the increased availability of fentanyl because of delayed toxicology results," the report said.
"The investigations occurring at the scene would support the fact fentanyl use is a significant contributor to the overdose death rate."
Even still, the report said Waterloo Regional Police are taking measures to save lives.
The force spent $43,000 dollars this year to equip front line officers with Narcan nasal spray, which is able to deliver a dose of Nalaxone, a proven opioid antidote that can be administered without medical training.
"Naloxone is an effective antidote for opioids that effectively, but temporarily, reverses the effect of the drug," the report said.
"Its impact wears off in 30 to 90 minutes so it is important to seek further medical attention."