'Like selling your soul': Fentanyl dealer tells how she got hooked on deadly drug
Medical experts have urged the federal government to declare a national public health emergency
Ask Vixen how powerful fentanyl is.
She knows because she sells the drug, and takes the drug, and has overdosed on it, many, many times.
She knows addicts who will give anything to get that high.
"Like this phone, for example," she says. "Someone traded me this phone for one pill."
She knows addicts, because she is one.
"At first, I was just selling it," says Vixen, not her real name. "I didn't really want to get into it, because I knew how dangerous it was."
'I just wanted to try it'
The first time she took fentanyl she was 17.
"I just wanted to try it," she says, "to see what I was selling to people. I wanted to see the quality. I just wanted to see what was so important about this drug."
She was already using heroin and Percocet, but once she tried fentanyl, they seemed to pale by comparison.
"I realized, 'Why haven't I been using this? This is so much cheaper, it's such a better high.' "
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Three years after she first took fentanyl, Vixen is still selling the stuff. Still chasing that "better high." Still gambling with her life.
An opioid painkiller many times more powerful than heroin, fentanyl has killed thousands of Canadians in recent years.
It almost killed Vixen, many times.
"From last January to this January," she says, "it's been a total of 26 overdoses. I'm lucky to be alive."
A number like that may seem shocking, but it doesn't surprise Doug Bennett, program and resources co-ordinator at Youth Empowerment and Support Services in Edmonton.
"With the strength of the drug, from what I've heard, with its addiction potential, those kinds of numbers aren't something that is totally unexpected," Bennett says. "As you can see, it's caused a lot of pain for people."
Riley Bahl has an idea of what that pain is like. The Calgary teen is a graduate of the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre and has been sober for nine months. His drug of choice was crystal meth but he experimented with fentanyl once and understands the draw.
'A much more intense high'
"Fentanyl is definitely a much more intense high," says Bahl, 18. "For myself, it caused a lot of euphoria and pleasure. So I did find that I was looking for another fentanyl high. But it was just a drug that I didn't prioritize over my drug of choice."
It's hard to imagine crystal meth being the safer choice, but Bahl says these days many users are mixing their drugs.
"I would say it's fairly common," he says. "Once you get to a certain point in addiction, just smoking meth or just doing fentanyl wouldn't give you an effect. And you're constantly looking for more. So you start mixing very dangerous drugs like fentanyl and crystal meth."
Canada's fentanyl crisis has become so acute, medical experts have urged the federal government to declare a national public health emergency.
Edmonton psychologist Christopher Shorrock says there's a fine line between substance use and addiction.
"No one goes into their lives thinking, 'I hope I become an addict,' " Shorrock says. "That, I would say, is almost always an absolute accident, and a horrible one, to become stuck in that way."
Shorrock thinks it's difficult to diagnose the cause, let alone the solution.
"It's not actually the drug itself," he says. "In fact, it's not even necessarily the doctors. I'm definitely one [who is] behind pushing doctors to not readily prescribe very high-acting opiate medications, if at all possible.
I'm glad it's an issue we're talking about openly. We're not trying to pretend it doesn't exist.- Psychologist Christopher Shorrock
"Normally, these are wonderful drugs that work great for people in terms of pain relief. But if anyone is susceptible to addiction ... things like that, our doctors need to know and they need to prescribe based on that."
Shorrock thinks more should be done to help those who do get trapped by addictions.
"Every little bit we can do possibly would help," he says. "I'm glad it's an issue we're talking about openly. We're not trying to pretend it doesn't exist.
"We're acknowledging that there's a lot of deaths, and this is a huge issue. So the awareness is the first bit, of course. And it's not a matter of saying, 'Well, it's addiction and there's nothing else we can do.' Because we do have wonderful research about what causes addiction, and what works for it and how to treat it."
'You'll have nothing'
For teens who are thinking about trying fentanyl, Vixen, who is now 20, has a simple warning.
"Don't," she says. "Honestly, don't.
"If you want to throw your life away like that, just go jump off the High Level Bridge. All this drug is going to do is going to ruin your relationships, it's going to ruin your family, it's going to ruin your job. You'll have nothing.
"I see people come up to me, they give me the coats off their backs and it's –40 C outside, just for a pill. That's how much this drug means to people.
"This drug is like selling your soul."