Fentanyl a 'public health emergency' in Montreal, doctor warns

In the wake of a spike of overdoses and deaths across the city, Montreal Public Health is calling for an action plan to fight fentanyl and prevent a crisis situation similar to the one unfolding in British Columbia.

Montreal Public Health, community organizations concerned over increased presence of deadly drug

Fentanyl, a dangerous opioid, has been a growing concern across Canada. (CBC)

In the wake of a spike of drug overdoses across the city, Montreal Public Health is calling for an action plan to fight fentanyl and prevent a crisis situation similar to the one unfolding in British Columbia.

The Quebec coroner's office is reporting that 24 confirmed cases of drug overdoses, and 12 deaths possibly connected to drug overdoses, have occurred since Aug. 1 in Montreal.

As of late August, Montreal police say there have been more than 90 drug overdoses this year, 10 of which were linked to the powerful painkiller. Two of the overdoses were fatal. 

"For us that means we have to move to the next step of our plan," Dr. Carole Morissette, the medical chief for Montreal Public Health, told Radio-Canada.

As a result, the agency launched a surveillance initiative where they analyze urine samples provided on a voluntary basis from drug users.

The preliminary results confirmed that many of the users had taken drugs laced with fentanyl without their knowledge — a situation that is becoming more common in Montreal, according to community workers.

"Before it was mostly in opioids, like heroin and counterfeit Oxycodone pills," said Ange Desaulniers, an employee with Méta d'Âme, an organization that works with drug users.

"But now we're finding it in all kinds of drugs in Montreal — we found it in MDMA, in PCP, in cocaine."

There has been at least 24 confirmed cases of drug overdoses in Montreal since Aug. 1. (Charles Contant/CBC)

As a result, Montreal Public Health is pushing for an increase in trained workers — including police officers, firefighters and social workers — on the ground to help combat the potentially fatal effects of fentanyl.

"For us, it's a public health emergency," said Morissette.

Increasing access to naloxone

Montreal Public Health is also recommending that regular citizens should be allowed to administer naloxone, a drug used to treat a narcotic overdose, without having to undergo special training.

In Ontario, the government has given out thousands of the naloxone kits for free and in B.C., the training is offered online.

Quebec Public Security Ministry spokesperson recently said that naloxone is publicly available in pharmacies, but a Gatineau-based nursing professor found that it wasn't available, or that pharmacists would refuse it to her since she didn't have the proper training to administer it.

The contents of a standard Naloxone kit. (CBC)

"​Some pharmacists didn't even know what naloxone was," Marilou Gagnon told CBC in August.

Making the life-saving drug more accessible in Montreal means that drug users and their family members could administer the naloxone in a situation where time is of essence.

"We want to expand as much as possible to all of the places where there is the possibility of overdoses," said Morissette.

Upcoming action plan

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said earlier this week that he would be meeting with Montreal police and public health Tuesday to see what resources are needed to address and prepare an action plan.

"I want to speak to everyone concerned by this situation," said Coderre. "It's an ongoing job."

The Public Security Ministry is also preparing for a possible crisis and said it will unveil an action plan in the coming months.

With files from Verity Stevenson and Radio-Canada