Fentanyl involved in at least 32 Maritime drug deaths
Experts warn that fentanyl crisis, which has killed hundreds in British Columbia, could be coming east
Jenn Perry doesn't believe her fiancé knew what fentanyl was before it took his life.
Two years ago, Perry stood outside a Moncton apartment building, clutching a picture of 29-year-old Julien Gould and waiting to hear if he was alive.
She hadn't heard from Gould for five days, silence she said was out of character for him. A few hours later, she identified his body by the tattoos on his hands.
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Gould and his 36-year-old friend were found dead on an apartment floor on Nov. 9, 2014, after ingesting a white, crystallized powder in a clear plastic bag.
That powder tested positive for a derivative of fentanyl, a powerful drug that can be deadly even in tiny doses.
But Perry doesn't think Gould knew that when he decided to try it.
He experimented with drugs when he was younger, but never anything as strong and unpredictable as fentanyl.
"I'm sure a lot of people think that they're invincible and maybe if they're used to some other drugs, they think this drug isn't going to hurt them either," she said.
"But it's in a league of its own."
An impending crisis
Fentanyl has wreaked havoc across New England and in British Columbia, where officials declared a public health emergency after hundreds were killed by overdoses earlier this year.
Like Gould, some of those people died after taking the drug for the first time.
While fentanyl abuse hasn't reached epidemic levels in the Maritimes, Gould and his friend are not the only people in the region to die after taking the drug.
CBC News has analyzed the details of hundreds of drug-involved deaths in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island dating back to 2008.
The data shows fentanyl was involved in at least 32 drug-involved deaths.
Officials who work on the front lines of addiction, including police and harm reduction workers, fear those numbers will grow.
They warn of an impending crisis, one that has enveloped the provinces and states around the Maritimes and seems inevitably headed east.
In New Brunswick, RCMP say they are seeing fentanyl pop up in its prescribed form, in a patch designed for timed release for severe pain. But it's also appearing in counterfeit oxycodone pills.
"We're not naive enough here in Nova Scotia to think that there isn't a trend with this quite frightening opiate drug, that it might not find its way more frequently into our communities," said Sgt. Nancy Mason, a member of the Nova Scotia RCMP's serious and organized crime unit.
In New England, fentanyl use has exploded. Many of those people started out using addictive but more predictable prescription painkillers.
They moved to a more dangerous high after it became harder to get the pills their bodies were used to having.
Like New England, the Maritimes also has a base of prescription painkiller abuse.
More than 70 per cent of all drug-involved deaths in the Maritimes since 2008 involved at least one opiate.
That's 568 people.
Looking at the eyes of a ghost
Instead of delivering the box, Gould and his friend opened it, finding a Ziploc bag full of the drug.
Perry doesn't know how much the men took or whether they even knew what they were taking.
"I'm sure [Gould] didn't understand just how strong it is and its effects that it could have," Perry said.
"I'm sure that he would have made a different choice had he known how severe the consequences would have been."
She said she begged police to check his friend's apartment, but they wouldn't go in without the landlord's consent.
Finally, police entered the apartment on Nov. 9, five days after Gould spoke to Perry for the last time.
Perry read about the police scanner call on Facebook and rushed to the apartment building with photographs in her hand, desperate for answers.
Even before she saw Gould's body, she had a feeling in her heart that he was gone.
"I had looked at a picture a day before I found out he had passed away," she said.
"And I said to myself, I don't know why, but I feel like I'm looking at the eyes of a ghost."
Police looked for the original sender of the package, but never found him or her, RCMP Const. Isabelle Beaulieu said. Foul play has been ruled out.
She can't believe she'll never hear him play music again. She kept his acoustic guitar and thinks of him whenever she hears someone play an acoustic song.
"He wasn't just some random person with addiction issues," Perry said.
"This was somebody who just was such a light of life. It's just so wrong that something like this has happened to him."
Before he died, Gould talked about starting his own addiction support group. He wanted to get help with his drinking problem but was stuck on a waiting list.
If he survived, Perry believes he would want to tell people about the danger of fentanyl.
"I would think he would want [people] to know that it's not worth it for that one time, to say screw it, I'll try it," she said.
"Because there's too many people that you leave behind."