'An absolute crisis': 42 recent overdose calls near Lethbridge linked to toxic batch of drugs

Police and paramedics in southern Alberta responded to a major spate of drug overdoses on the weekend that they believe was linked to a highly concentrated batch of drugs, possibly carfentanil.

'It's devastating to the community.... It's heartbreaking,' says Blood Tribe spokesman Kevin Cowan

The side of a Lethbridge Regional Police car.
Police and EMS in both Lethbridge and the Blood Tribe are warning about an especially toxic batch of drugs they believe is behind a spate of overdoses. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Police and paramedics in southern Alberta responded to a major spate of drug overdoses recently that they believe was linked to a highly concentrated batch of drugs, possibly carfentanil.

In the past week, Lethbridge paramedics responded to 42 overdose calls, including 16 on Friday alone — the highest volume crews have ever seen in a single day, said Deputy Chief Dana Terry of Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services.

Overdose victims were aged 19 to 46. There were no reported fatalities.

In some cases, multiple people at a single scene required treatment. The patients required high doses of naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing medicine, because the drugs were so potent. Lethbridge police believe carfentanil, a highly toxic street drug, may be the cause of the overdoses.

"This is very concerning for our community,"  Terry said in a release. "The number of calls we received this weekend was a significant jump from what we usually respond to. This signals to us that something different is going on and we need everyone to be aware and be prepared."

Drugs sold as 'super beans'

On the Blood Tribe, EMS responded to 14 overdoses from Friday to Saturday, according to Kevin Cowan, chief executive of the the band's health department, adding he didn't know if anyone died.

"It's an absolute crisis," Cowan said. "It's devastating to the community. Everybody is affected by this situation. It's heartbreaking."

It's unclear whether there is any overlap in the overdose calls reported by Lethbridge and Blood Tribe EMS.

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, of the Blood Tribe, says the problem was especially bad on Friday, when four sources of financial government assistance came in at the same time.

"What I think is that the dealers from outside the community swooped in to make a quick deal on that day when there was money into the community," she said.

Blood Tribe police said the toxic drugs were sold as so-called "super beans." Acting Insp. Farica Syrette said police haven't confirmed what's in the pills but believe it's an especially toxic dose of fentanyl.

Blood Tribe police also concerned

Blood Tribe police responded to seven overdose calls from Friday night to Monday morning — none of them fatal (although these numbers may overlap with calls reported by Blood Tribe paramedics).

"We're concerned about the impacts of this highly concentrated dose of fentanyl," Syrette said, calling seven overdose reports in one weekend "extremely high."

"We're encouraging community members or anybody, really, with information on this sale or import of illicit drugs in the community to contact Crime Stoppers or police."

Chief and council meeting on overdoses

Blood Tribe chief and council planned to meet with police, health officials and other community members Monday afternoon to formalize a response to the overdoses.

"We need to sit down and get everybody together, (and) deploy all the resources we have," said band Coun. Lance Tailfeathers. "It's very alarming."

Esther Tailfeathers, who was to meet with the band government, said she believes officials should consider staggering government assistance cheques, having more treatment and naloxone available, and studying overdose statistics to determine if there is a way to predict similar incidents and plan for them.

"The community is very fearful right now that this could happen again in a short period of time," she said. "And many people are worried about losing their family members."