Cindy Murphy suspects it's only a matter of time before someone at the John Howard Society will have to reach for a life-saving naloxone kit.

The organization, which deals with people in the criminal justice system, went to a pharmacy last month and purchased the opioid antidotes itself.

"I would suggest upwards of 80 per cent of the people who we work with on a daily basis have a substance abuse issue," Murphy said Tuesday.

Those who attend programs and sessions at the St. John's office have been hearing stories of overdoses happening to their associates and family members, she said.

'I felt as an organization which works with a high-risk population we need to quickly get ourselves in place to be able to deal with the possible consequences of it.' - Cindy Murphy, John Howard Society

"Luckily for us, we haven't had to experience it on site with any of our programs but working with a high risk population, it seems like it's only a matter of time until someone in one of our programs has an overdose."

The provincial government began distributing 1,200 naloxone kits — including the antidote, needles, and the items to administer it — in the fall.

But groups like the John Howard Society, which also operates halfway houses, were not provided the kits.

More drugs than before

"It's scary. There's no question about it," Murphy said of the recent wave of overdoses.

Eastern Health has confirmed 18 overdoses since April. Two people have died.

"I felt as an organization which works with a high-risk population, we need to quickly get ourselves in place to be able to deal with the possible consequences of it."


Narcan — a nasal spray version of naloxone — will now be issued to all front-line Ontario Provincial Police officers. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Murphy has seen a shift over time from mostly alcohol addiction to a plethora of issues, involving heavier substances.

"I thought maybe we were isolated because of the island, and that heroin and that type of drugs never really made it to the island in a big way but we're seeing more and more of that than ever before," she said.

"It's here. And the degree of which remains to be seen."

So far, there have been three non-fatal overdoses in Newfoundland and Labrador's largest prison, Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

In each case, staff managed to keep the inmates alive with naloxone until paramedics arrived.

But Murphy stressed that addiction crosses all paths in life — not just those in the criminal justice system.

She'd like to see the province invest more heavily in distributing kits to those who need them.

Gathering resources at Montreal conference

Meanwhile, a Memorial University assistant professor is attending a four-day drug conference in Montreal this week, and plans to bring back materials to help with the rash of opioid overdoses in this province.

Harm Reduction International's conference brings together people from all over the globe to focus on the response to the opioid epidemic.

Christopher Smith

Christopher Smith, an assistant professor with Memorial University's school of social work, is attending a drug conference in Montreal. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Christopher Smith is bringing back fentanyl test strips, as well as Narcan — the nasal spray version of nalxone, and will provide the items to the Safe Access Works Program in St. John's.

"There's only about 40 to 50 [test strips] to begin with and I was able to get three or four," Smith said.

"Users are really seen as equals here," Smith said, speaking by phone. "Lived experience and experienced knowledge possessed by users is really, truly valued here and given its proper due, I suppose."

Fentanyl test strip

Test strips can detect when fentanyl is mixed with other drugs. (Submitted by Christopher Smith)