Nfld. & Labrador

Lethal street drugs already 'a major health crisis,' outreach worker says

A Burin Peninsula woman's rapid death by overdose may be connected to the extraordinarily powerful painkiller fentanyl, says a woman who works closely with IV drug addicts.

Drug use

7 years ago
Duration 3:02
Concerns are being raised about the possibility of fentanyl, a fast-acting narcotic analgesic that is sometimes being passed off as oxy. The CBC's Adam Walsh spoke to long time outreach worker Tree Walsh.

When outreach worker Tree Walsh heard the story of a Fortune woman's drug overdose on CBC News, she had one thought: fentanyl. 

Walsh thinks drug dealers are packaging fentanyl — a potent painkiller that can be 100 times more powerful than morphine — to look like oxycodone pills, like the popular painkiller Percocet or the now-discontinued OxyContin, and that it is being sold to intravenous drug users in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As soon as you put the needle in your arm, depending on the dose, you can be found with the needle hanging out of your arm and your arm just drop- Tree Walsh 

In an interview, Walsh said that many people — even drug users themselves — are not aware of how prevalent such harmful drugs already are.

"We have a major health crisis happening and it's just not being resourced well enough to be able to address the issues," said Walsh, who works for the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP), in the Tommy Sexton Centre in the east end of St. John's.

She said the consequences of injecting yourself with fentanyl can be deadly.

"As soon as you put the needle in your arm, depending on the dose, you can be found with the needle hanging out of your arm and your arm just drop," said Walsh.

"You can die that quickly."

Walsh knows quite a bit about IV drug use in the province. Last year, SWAP gave out 516,860 needles to users. About half of the used needles were returned, and one of Walsh's jobs is to dispose of them safely.

Reports from across province

Even though autopsy results will be needed to know for certain whether or not fentanyl was involved in the Fortune woman's death two weeks ago, Walsh said she has been hearing reports from drug users that the drug is indeed here in the province.

Fentanyl has emerged as a serious problem in several provinces. (The Canadian Press/HO/Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams )

"We're getting reports from right across [the province]. Deer Lake, Corner Brook, everywhere it's happening," said Walsh, adding that no one is reporting solid data on deaths caused by drugs.

"I'd like to know how many deaths there have been from drug overdose in this province in the last year," she said.

If fentanyl is indeed being sold in Newfoundland and Labrador, this province is not a unique case.

Last year there were 120 deaths linked to the street drug in Alberta.

"I'm so tired of people dying," she said. "I really am."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.

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