NL·CBC Investigates

Killer drugs: N.L. death count rose to 20 last year; fentanyl a factor in 5 fatal overdoses

Twenty people died last year from taking drugs in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to statistics obtained from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — a notable increase from previous years, with potent opiates fentanyl and oxycodone among the top killers.

2015 numbers are higher than figures reported in 2013 and 2014

Dawn Smallwood's son Nathan died from a fentanyl overdose on March 28, 2015, at the age of 23. Dawn Smallwood attended a rally outside of Confederation Building on Aug. 31. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Twenty people died last year from taking drugs in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to statistics obtained from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — a notable increase from previous years, with potent opiates fentanyl and oxycodone among the top killers.

One death was caused by a relatively new psychedelic drug called 25i-Nbome, that is currently at the centre of a criminal negligence trial in New Brunswick

  • Fentanyl: 5
  • Oxycodone: 5
  • Morphine: 4
  • Methadone: 3
  • Codeine: 1
  • Tramadol: 1
  • Hydromorphone: 1
  • Cocaine: 1
  • 25i Nbome: 1

Of the 20 drug-related deaths in 2015, 18 people tested positive for one or more opiates.

I think if more people were moreopen andstart speaking vocally about this, there would be more action in the communties.- Jeff Bourne, executive director of U-Turn

That's up from 2014 and 2013, which each recorded 14 deaths. In 2014, fentanyl was cited as a cause for just three deaths. In 2013, two deaths were linked to fentanyl.

In response to mounting pressure for help in dealing with addictions, the provincial government announced in August it would distribute 1,200 take-home kits, containing naloxone — a drug that reverses overdose effects — along with the needed items to administer it: latex gloves, single-use syringes, alcohol swabs and more.

There were 20 drug-related accidental deaths last year in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC News Graphics)

The Department of Health and Community Services says the kits will be distributed at the end of the month at 20 provincial distribution sites. They include the Safe Works Access Program satellite sites, youth and adult correctional facilities, and all four health authorities.

Demand for help increases

Three years ago, U-Turn in Carbonear had about six people attend addictions meetings on a regular basis. Now, they see upwards of 25.

Executive director Jeff Bourne says that uptick has been significant over the last several months, and he's not sure why. 

Jeff Bourne and his wife Tammy run the U-Turn Drop-In Centre in Carbonear, in Conception Bay North. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

U-Turn offers drop-in services and meetings. By the time addicts go to Bourne's organization, he says they are already using drugs intravenously. 

"There [are overdose] cases that went unreported," Bourne said. "You have to understand we're living in a time and generation where mental health and addiction, stigma is still there."

"If you have a loved one who died due to addiction it could be cardiac arrest, there could be respiratory [problem that] stops breathing, and that's what's put on your death certificate."

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic drug that is often cut with other substances. (CBC)

Bourne thinks that more family members should speak out to break the stigma, and let the public know how dire the situation is. 

Fentanyl in particular has sparked stark warnings across the country.

In the Maritimes, fentanyl was a factor in at least 32 drug-involved deaths dating back to 2008.

That's according to a CBC News analysis of the details of hundreds of drug-involved deaths in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

'Worrying trend'

There is also concern at Confederation Building in St. John's, where the province's health minister prepares to attend a national summit on opioid addiction.

"I think it's the beginnings of a worrying trend," Health Minister John Haggie told reporters Thursday.

Health Minister John Haggie will be attending a national conference and summit on opioid addiction in Ontario on Friday and Saturday. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"There is no doubt that the principle source of prescription opioids is prescriptions."

Haggie said in the new year the province will introduce a prescription monitoring program in the hopes of decreasing the amount of drugs on the streets.

Meanwhile, Haggie said there are 60 addictions and mental health sites across the province, and not all of them have wait times.

A red and white logo says CBC Investigates.


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email:

With files from Karissa Donkin and Jeremy Eaton