A new study is warning that abuse of the prescription narcotic fentanyl is on the rise in the country, with one person dying every three days in Canada as a result of using the drug.
Until recently, the painkiller was only available in a prescription skin patch, designed to slowly release the drug over 72 hours. But in the last five years, drug users discovered the prescription narcotic could be chewed, smoked, injected or otherwise consumed all at once.
Matthew Young, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in Ottawa who led the study, said users of fentanyl have little understanding of how poisonous the drug is.
"Fentanyl is significantly more toxic than oxycodone or other opioids," Young said, adding that many addicts mistakenly believe they are taking oxycodone instead of fentanyl.
"A smaller amount is required to potentially put someone in an overdose situation, and an individual who may not know what they are taking is in a greater risk of overdosing."
Powder form of drug enters scene
Since 2013, law enforcement and social workers have seen the powder form of the drug being introduced to the drug scene. The illicit drug, which RCMP say is largely smuggled in from China, is most often mixed in with other drugs such as heroine and cocaine or used to make fake oxycontin pills.
Drug users sometimes have no idea they're consuming fetanyl.
The rise in fetanyl-related deaths in British Columbia and the prairie provinces is linked to the powder form of the drug, while in Ontario most deaths are linked to abuse of the fetanyl patch.
The study found that from 2009 to 2014, there were 655 deaths across the country as a result of the drug, with the majority of the deaths occurring in 2013 and 2014.
Fentanyl deaths underreported, doctor says
Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla, an addictions specialist who runs drug treatment clinic Recovery Ottawa, said fentanyl can be highly addictive and is circulating at high school parties.
"It's definitely young people — we recently had someone who was 12 years old doing fentanyl," Ujjainwalla said, adding that he expects just five per cent of his patients addicted to fentanyl will successfully break their addictions.
"We see it all the time, many people are dying from fentanyl in Ottawa. It's underreported."
Ujjainwalla said the problem is made worse by the lack of methadone treatment centres in the province to help users recover from fentanyl addiction. His own walk-in clinic doesn't have the resources to offer comprehensive, in-patient care, he said.
"In Ontario ... the powers that be in health care don't get it or care that the people are dying from a disease that is easily treatable," he said.