'Weapons-grade opioid' carfentanil detected in Waterloo region, drug taskforce warns

Health Canada confirmed carfentanil was found in green counterfeit pills.

Health Canada confirmed carfentanil found in counterfeit pills

Health Canada confirmed carfentanil was found in green counterfeit pills stamped CDN and 80, the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy said. Police had initially issued a warning about the pills, which looked to be counterfeit OxyContin. (Waterloo Region Police Service)

The discovery of carfentanil in pills being sold on the streets in Waterloo region is terrifying, Michael Parkinson of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council says.

"I can't overstate the seriousness of carfentanil," he told CBC News Tuesday, a day after the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy issued an overdose alert about the drug. "It's a weapons-grade opioid and it's been used in acts of war before. We should be paying attention rather than reacting after the fact."

Carfentanil is so deadly a former US defence official said it should be considered a weapon. An aerosol version of the drug was used by Russian forces against Chechen separatists in 2002, when the separatists took over 800 people hostage at a Moscow theatre. More than 120 hostages died. 

Health Canada confirmed carfentanil was found in green counterfeit pills stamped CDN and 80, which resemble OxyContin pills.

The notice from the drug strategy warns carfentanil is an opioid used to sedate large animals, such as elephants, "and is not for human consumption."

Carfentanil cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste.

Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug used for pain relief, is more potent than morphine.

Police warned about green pills

Waterloo Regional Police issued a warning about the green pills Nov. 25. 

"As these pills are not being manufactured in controlled laboratory conditions, the contents within the individual pills can vary from a minimal to a fatal overdose with no way to determine the dosage from appearance," police said at the time.

Two people were treated for overdoses in connection with the drugs, one in Cambridge and the other in Kitchener.

Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin said he isn't sure if this is the first time carfentanil has been found in the province, but it's not as prevalent here as it is in western Canada or parts of the United States.

But it's not a surprise it's on the streets here.

"The reality is that we the fentanyl wave has been coming into Ontario and this is just a part of that wave in our view," Larkin said in a phone interview during a break from a conference of Ontario police leaders in Barrie.

Often when people use drugs, "they do not know what they're ingesting. This is a prime example," he said.

"We look at the magnitude of the potential for serious injury and likely death when somebody uses carfentanil unknowingly. That's the challenge, is that people do not that they are ingesting this," he said. "This is obviously significant in our region, but that being said, I'm also proud of the work being done by our frontline officers."
This pills, known as 'green beans,' are sold illegally to users as oxycodone, but are actually fentanyl mixed with caffeine and much more toxic. (Dan Burritt/CBC)

Dangerous time for drug use

Parkinson said the green pills that look like OxyContin – an oxycodone pill which hasn't been on the market for a few years now – are ubiquitous across Canada. Sometimes they contain bootleg fentanyl, sometimes it's another drug.

"We've seen those green pills contain four to six times the lethal dose of fentanyl needed to kill someone and we've seen pills that contain absolutely no fentanyl," he said.

"It is truly a dangerous time to be using substances either occasionally or daily, but for people who are dependent or addicted to opioids, there is often little choice in the absence of improved addiction treatment programs in Waterloo region, in terms of harm reduction supports and other initiatives."
Carfentanil resembles table salt but is 100 times more potent than fentanyl. (Canada Border Services)

Carfentanil is particularly potent and Parkinson said it would take a large amount of naloxone to reverse an overdose from the opioid.

"We're hearing reports of eight or nine or more doses of naloxone being used in other communities to revive overdose victims," he said.

In Ontario, the naloxone kits only contain two doses, he noted.

Parkinson said more needs to done to not only get the drugs off the streets, but to help those with addictions fight back. Until then, the drugs will continue to spread.

"There should be no surprise that carfentanil has finally landed in Ontario," he said. "It's unfortunate that Waterloo region is first, but we won't be the last."