'We're finding it everywhere:' Meth spike worrying, straining Winnipeg's emergency responders
'Getting the word out there about how dangerous this is, is probably the best way we can challenge it'
Meth use is soaring in Winnipeg and police have already seized — in just one month — nearly half the total confiscated in all of 2017.
Police Chief Danny Smyth told reporters at a news conference on Thursday that he is often asked at public events what sorts of things give him trouble sleeping. There's no hesitation in his answer these days.
"In the last while, the emergency of the methamphetamine that we're experiencing in our community is getting to that level where it's starting to keep me awake at night," he said.
"There's probably not a week that goes by where we don't encounter some kind of sensational, newsworthy event that we may not even recognize at the time is associated to meth."
Smyth recalled the police-involved shooting in Winnipeg's downtown skywalk last year, the man who fell from a 15th-floor balcony last month, and various robberies and other crimes.
The escalation of meth really took off in 2016 — a year that marked a spike in busts, with 490 separate seizures totalling 11.6 kilograms of the drug, said Insp. Max Waddell, divisional commander of the police service's organized crime unit.
In 2017, there were more than 700 seizures amounting to more than 12 kilograms of the drug.
Already in just the first month of 2018, police have seized more than 5.8 kilograms of meth, worth close to $600,000, Waddell said. Of that, four kilograms were seized in three busts during the span of a single week, Jan. 20-27.
Police also took in more than 100 grams of cocaine, one kilogram of an unknown substance believed to be fentanyl, 67 grams of marijuana, a sawed-off shotgun and ammunition in those three busts.
There's no boundaries. We're finding it everywhere.- Insp. Max Waddell
"That gives you an indication of the workload we have undertaken in the last two years," Waddell said.
"When speaking to our front-line officers, they comment routinely that when they go to calls for service now, either the victim, the complainant and/or accused are somehow attached to this drug."
Finding guns during meth busts is also common "and very concerning for police," Waddell said, adding the drug is being found in all areas of the city, from the core "to suburbia."
"There's no boundaries. We're finding it everywhere."
What is causing the spike?
There are four driving factors making meth the drug of choice, said Waddell.
- The low cost, which keeps going down.
Two years ago, a kilogram of meth sold for about $55,000. It now goes for about $17,000, Waddell said.
- The high.
The high from meth can last up to 14 hours, compared to about 45 minutes for crack cocaine. "The bang for buck with methamphetamine is far superior," Waddell said.
- It's easy to get.
Meth is readily available in the city, coming in both from other countries as well as from Western Canada, where it is being produced more and more.
- It's easy to produce.
Meth is made with very common, off-the-shelf products — cold medicine, iodine, even camp fuel, Waddell said, adding "really, anyone can make this."
Impact on emergency services
The increase in use of the drug is having "a huge impact on public service resources," including police, the fire-paramedic service and hospitals, Waddell said.
Although Winnipeg hasn't experienced a major meth-lab problem, police did uncover what they believe was a large-scale lab in the Central Park neighbourhood, just north of downtown.
Waddell expects to see many more labs in the near future, as localized drug dealers get into the production of meth. Right now, about 80 per cent of the supply comes from Mexican cartels who ship it to Chicago, and it's distributed further from there.
To rein in the problem before it gets out of hand, the police service is focusing attention on building public awareness and education around meth.
"We are in the process of finalizing an illicit-drug strategy that will encompass the actions of not only enforcement but also intervention and education," Waddell said.
"And I can tell you that probably the most important one is intervention. We need to help people.
"The community needs to come together to help people we know are on meth, get them the addictions counselling and assistance that they need."
Police are also running public education forums with drug experts. The next one is Feb. 12 at 7 p.m.at Gordon Bell High School.
"Until we can reduce the demand for meth, the supply will continue to come into the city of Winnipeg," Waddell said.
'Anyone can be susceptible'
In the meantime, Smyth said there is hope and it comes from people like his former neighbour Mike Millard.
Millard is now two years into his recovery journey from crystal meth addiction.
"I think the irony is that someone that has a drug problem could live on the same street as the chief of police," Millard said. "I think that speaks to just how anyone can be susceptible to the problems that are occuring."
The 47-year-old father had used drugs recreationally as a form of self-medication, but said when he tried crystal meth he was hooked instantaneously.
"From the first time I tried I didn't stop for a year unless I was sleeping," Millard said. "It basically took everything away."
Millard said he stopped going to work and paying his mortgage and he eventually lost him home and relationship with family and friends. He said his life turned around when he was taken into custody for three weeks for breaking back into his former home after it was repossessed.
"That was sort of my detox period," he said. "Not only did it give me an opportunity to get clean but it really gave me a chance to think about my life ... all I could think about was that I just don't want to come back here."
Millard said he was eventually connected with the Anchorage Recovery Program through the Salvation Army and is two and half years clean.
While the problem Winnipeg is facing is real, there is hope and help but those in the throes of addiction have to want it, Millard said.
"It's not going to happen automatically," he said. "If you keep trying there are resources out there."
As a way to give back, he is working to develop a formal gang-exit program for men over the age of 24 after a year in drug-treatment. He is currently putting together a business proposal with other community partners.
Unpredictable and dangerous
Dr. Rob Grierson, medical director for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and an emergency room physician at the Health Sciences Centre, said he can't emphasize enough how frightening meth is, both to the users and to those around them.
"The one message that needs to be said loud and clear is that this is a very, very dangerous substance. It's dangerous to the users, almost lethal to the users in some instances, and it's challenging for the health-care system because it's so unpredictable," he said.
It can cause physiological effects such as elevated heart rates, blood pressure levels and respiratory rates in users. That can make people agitated and erratic, he said.
It's really unprecedented in terms of its unpredictability in the health-care world.- Dr. Rob Grierson
"You can have lapses in judgment, you can have superhuman powers and you can even have sudden cardiac death," Grierson said.
"Along with that, you can have psychological effects like increased energy and euphoria … and poor self control."
But the most challenging aspect comes as users transition from that most intense phase to the more latent one, when paranoia, hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms kick in, he said.
"And these can last from hours up to days," Grierson said, noting the effects depend on the individual.
"From a health-care standpoint, no two individuals and no two uses are exactly alike, which makes it very, very challenging to manage these patients. It's really unprecedented in terms of its unpredictability in the health-care world."
And just to make it even more challenging, even after people have pulled themselves out of the grip of the addiction, they can sometimes relapse into that psychotic and paranoid state without warning, Grierson said.
"Getting the word out there about how dangerous this is, is probably the best way we can challenge it."
Smyth acknowledged at the end of Thursday's news conference "that we've painted a pretty dark picture here, and it is a serious issue."
He added, however, "there's also hope here."
Anyone with information related to illegal drug use or the drug trade in Winnipeg is urged to contact investigators at 204-986-8435 or Crime Stoppers at 204-786-TIPS (8477).