Nfld. & Labrador

Fentanyl in Newfoundland: Timeline of a powerful killer drug

As Eastern Health continues to count the number of overdoses related to opioid fenanyl, we take a look back at the drug's entrance to the province.

Biker gang raids, drug deaths highlight fentanyl's entrance to Canada's most easterly province

Christopher Smith, the local site co-ordinator for the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network, passed out information sheets on fentanyl in downtown St. John's on May 5. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

They knew it was coming.

For more than a year, outreach workers waited for the day that fentanyl — an opioid that is about 100 times more potent than morphine — would overwhelm the drug-taking community in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

That day — or rather week — came in late April, during which Eastern Health revealed at a news conference that the deadly drug was suspected in 15 overdoses and one death on the northeast Avalon.

Since then, the overdose number has risen to 18, including two deaths. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner says the toxicology reports have not come back yet on the two deaths. 

The synthetic opioid can be prescribed as pain medication, but its abuse as a street drug has swept across Canada, killing more than 1,000 people. 

The move of fentanyl to the street in Newfoundland and Labrador isn't new, with the deadly drug discovered by police in parts of the province over the last four years. 

Drug deaths: 2013-2015

According to statistics from the chief medical examiner, fentanyl played a role in two deaths in 2013. 

Dawn Smallwood's son Nathan died from a fentanyl overdose in 2015. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

In 2014, fentanyl was cited as a cause for three deaths. By 2015, the number had climbed to five.

It's not clear if these deaths were accidental, or whether the overdoses were caused by drugs purchased on the street.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Newfoundland reported five accidental or undetermined fentanyl-implicated deaths, between from 1997 to 2013.

One death was an overdose due to fentanyl alone, while four other deaths involved other drugs. All cases involved fentanyl patches.

August 2016

The Newfoundland and Labrador government announces it will supply 1,200 kits containing naloxone — a drug that reverses overdose effects —  province-wide.

The 1,200 take-home kits, available free of charge, contain naloxone along with items needed to administer it, like latex gloves, single-use syringes and alcohol swabs. 

September 2016

A sweeping raid of Vikings Motorcycle clubhouses and their alleged members turned up 27 grams of powder sold as heroin. But police said it actually contained 3.6 per cent fentanyl.

Police heralded Project Bombard, which involved charges of murder and drug trafficking, as having stopped the Hells Angels from gaining a foothold in the province.  

The RCMP displayed various items taken during the Project Bombard searches — including trucks, motorcycles, weapons, clothing and drugs. 2:47

In that same month, the RCMP spoke publicly about how its members were preparing for fentanyl to hit the east coast.

"This is certainly a new thing for us to be aware of and deal with," Staff Sgt. Steven Conohan, the head of the province's clandestine drug lab team, told CBC News at the time.

Conohan said officers had been seizing fentanyl "sporadically" in the province.

"It's not relegated to any specific area. We're seizing it throughout [the island] as well as in Labrador."

November 2016

Operation Titanium saw guns, drugs and other weapons worth about $750,000 seized from the Avalon Peninsula.

Four people were charged, including a man and woman in Pouch Cove, a man from St. John's and another from Montreal.

Four people have been charged as a result of Operation Titanium, a 10-month long investigation that saw about $750,000 worth of drugs seized. 1:14

The next month, police said lab tests determined 252 tablets seized were fentanyl.

January 2017

Contraband pills manufactured to look like OxyContin were discovered on the Burin Peninsula.

The RCMP warned the pills contained fentanyl, a drug that will give a similar high, but is much stronger.

April 2017

Eastern Health holds a news conference warning of 15 overdoses and one death on the northeast Avalon, over the course of two weeks. 

Patients reported to doctors that they believed they were taking heroin prior to overdosing. There were some cases involving cocaine and Percocet, according to the RNC. 

Niki Chapman, 39, died April 26 of an overdose. (Facebook)

Hours after the health authority made a public plea for users to be extra cautious, a mother of three boys overdosed.

Niki Chapman, 39, died in a home on Empire Avenue. She was the second reported overdose from the same cluster of drugs. 

May 2017

The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit announces two men have been arrested in relation to a drug seizure on a quiet street in the east end of St. John's.

Justin Hopkins, 33, and James Lucas, 40, were stopped by police at 11 p.m. on April 28 and arrested for trafficking cocaine.

Justin Hopkins, 33, was arrested and accused of trafficking drugs, then arrested again for breaching conditions. (CBC)

The following afternoon, neighbours were told to stay inside their homes as police searched a bungalow on Beauford Place.

Laboratory testing later revealed that fentanyl had been mixed in with the heroin.

On May 4, police seized heroin during a traffic stop in the east end of St. John's.

Officers believed the small amount of drugs may have contained fentanyl. The seized drugs were sent for analysis.

Meanwhile, the province convenes a provincial advisory committee meeting on how best to handle the opioid crisis.

What's next?

Tree Walsh, who has been warning of the drug for years, described this wave of overdoses as "the thin edge of the wedge."

In an interview in late April, Walsh said the province and outreach workers need to be prepared, adding she and volunteers with the Safe Access Works Program have been busy distributing clean needles and instructing people on how to use naloxone.

The province, meanwhile, is determining how to expand access to kits, where the kits should go, and how to educate the public on the dangers of the drug.  

About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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