Deadly carfentanil means 'everyone is at risk' in Winnipeg
Society needs to take a long, hard look at its growing dependence on prescription opioids
One of the most potent street drugs might have found its way into Winnipeg and one university professor is stressing how dangerous it is.
"When we're talking about carfentanil, a grain of it is enough to be toxic," said Shawn Bugden, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's faculty of pharmacy.
"Anybody but an elephant is at risk of a carfentanil overdose. Everyone is at risk."
A single tablet that someone is sort of experimenting with taking may kill them.- Shawn Bugden
Because the drug is so tiny and powerful, it's difficult to safely determine a non-lethal amount.
"Even hard-core drug addicts may get many, many times the dose they're used to taking and could be subject to overdose," Bugden said.
The police service's tactical team raided a hotel room in the West End of the city on Monday and seized 1,477 blotter tabs that they suspect contain carfentanil, although laboratory test results are still pending.
Carfentanil, one of the most potent versions of the highly-addictive fentanyl, is a synthetic opioid originally designed to immobilize large animals like moose and elephants.
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When it gets on the streets, there's no way to tell how much is safe, Bugden said.
"You can't, by eye, tell the difference between a toxic dose and a non-toxic dose … and people are relying on drug dealers to do the preparation."
One hundred times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 time stronger than morphine, carfentanil has been inching its way to Canada, leaving people dead or with serious health problems in its wake. Users have been known to take it intravenously or absorb it through the skin in a patch, or take it orally like a tablet.
"You just don't know how much of the drug is in there, so a single tablet that someone is sort of experimenting with taking may kill them," Bugden said.
Growing dependence on opioids
Fentanyl, when used appropriately, is an important drug in many treatments, but synthetic opioids — known as analogs — are manufactured in labs by making small changes to the fentanyl molecule.
Labs are the big problem and there are dozens of them around, Bugden said.
"Regulatory bodies are having trouble keeping up with the hobby chemists that are creating new fentanyls," he said, and police can only do so much as well, so it's difficult to tackle the problem.
While you can stress the dangers and urge people to not take illicit drugs, it's naive to think that will happen, Bugden said.
Ultimately, society needs to take a long, hard look at its growing dependence on prescription opioids, he said, noting there has been a four-fold increase in the amount of fentanyl and other opioids being used in Manitoba over the past decade.
The root of the problem is people who are introduced to opioids through prescriptions and then get hooked and move to illicit versions, Bugden said.
"We need to do a better job of thinking carefully about when and how we use opioids as part of the solution."
In the meantime, he is pleading with anyone who considers taking carfentanil to not be alone. If something goes wrong, someone needs to be there to call 911.