Street drug fentanyl called Alberta's leading public health problem

Alberta's leading public health problem is a street drug so lethal that even two extra grains can be fatal, says Health Minister Sarah Hoffman.

Powerful opioid killed more than 200 people in Alberta in the first nine months of 2015

The street drug fentanyl, which has already killed more than 200 Albertans this year, is being called the province's leading public health problem. (CBC)

Alberta's leading public health problem is a street drug so lethal that even two extra grains can be fatal, says Health Minister Sarah Hoffman.

In the first nine months of this year, fentanyl killed 213 people in Alberta. Fifty-five of those deaths happened in Edmonton, including two suspected overdoses last weekend.

There is an antidote called naloxone, which can save lives if it is administered soon enough.

Right now, naloxone is only available by prescription, and can only be administered by physicians, paramedics or fentanyl users themselves.

Hoffman said Tuesday the province has purchased 2,000 extra naloxone kits and is lobbying the federal government to change the rules to make the antidote more easily accessible.

"We don't want to break the law," Hoffman told CBC News, "but we are trying to make sure that we get it into as many people's hands as possible."

The number of deaths has more than doubled in the past year. In all of 2014, fentanyl killed 120 in Alberta. Four years ago, the drug was linked to six deaths.

The opioid narcotic is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Because most pills sold on the streets are cooked up in home labs, there is no quality control.

"When you're purchasing a street narcotic, it's never safe," Hoffman said. "You're always taking risks."

The minister said she recently spoke to an expert who likened these home drug labs to someone making chocolate chip cookies.

"Sometimes you'll get lots of chocolate chips in one cookie, and sometimes you won't get very many," she said. "And this drug is so lethal that something as small as two grains, two grains of sand or two grains of salt, can be lethal."

Hoffman said the province is working in several areas, to cut off the supply, to increase public awareness, and to open up more spaces in drug treatment centres.

"The research seems pretty clear that harm reduction is the way to best enable people to make a healthier decision in their own lives," Hoffman said. "We're not here to judge, we're here to try to save lives."


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