CACP Bulletin

Spring 2017

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4 CACP Spring 2017 Learning from BC's experience as CANADA PREPARES FOR FENTANYL'S IMPACT By: S/Sgt. Conor King, Victoria Police Department B etween 2007 and 2012 the average number of illicit drug overdose deaths in the province of British Columbia was 226 per year. In 2013 the number rose to 332. In the years that followed it continued to climb, with 922 fatal overdoses in 2016. 1 What caused this seismic shift in the drug situation in British Columbia? In 2012 illicit fentanyl was introduced into the drug market as both a supplement to heroin and replacement to oxycodone. Cheap, easy to acquire, and powerful - fentanyl now dominates B.C's illicit drug market. Potent in minute quantities, it is highly profitable for the drug dealer, sought after by the drug users and often deadly. Before Fentanyl: The Prescription Drug and Heroin Epidemic Prior to the 1980s, prescription opioids like oxycodone were reserved for treating patients with acute injuries or caner related pain. Aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies convinced physicians that these drugs were safe and non-addictive and encouraged their use in treating conditions like back pain and arthritis. Canada became the second largest consumer of prescription opioids per capita, after the United States 2 . The result was an epidemic of prescription drug abuse and addiction. When tighter controls were finally placed on legitimate opioids and users couldn't get prescription narcotics from a physician, many turned to heroin, intensifying the opioid epidemic. OxyContin, Purdue Pharma's potent slow release version of oxycodone was arguably the most coveted prescription narcotic. The 80 milligram pill, easily identifiable because of its unique green color and known on the street as a "greenie" was a favorite across the spectrum of drug users in British Columbia. From the young men and women living the "gangster" lifestyle in Vancouver, to the street entrenched users living in the city's embattled downtown east side, "greenies" were crushed and snorted or injected for their euphoric effect 3 . Under mounting pressure, Purdue pulled the drug from the Canadian market in 2012 and replaced it with a tamper resistant version. Though the pill was no longer available, the demand remained high. Conditions were perfect for a new opioid to hit the market. Fentanyl hits the streets In the spring of 2013 officers with the Victoria Police Department's Focused Enforcement Division, responsible for policing the city's downtown core, began hearing from drug users about a new and powerful type of heroin. Undercover officers made several purchases and determined the presence of fentanyl - packaged to look like heroin. While small amounts of fentanyl had been seized before, it was medically sourced, usually from transdermal fentanyl patches. This was the first time officers had seen illicit fentanyl being disguised and sold as heroin on a large scale. In Vancouver, fentanyl began showing up in pill form. The market for the "greenies" had been strong there and now enterprising Organized Crime Groups (OCG) exploited the vacuum created when OxyContin was pulled. Utilizing their experience in the manufacturing of MDMA (of which Vancouver based organized crime is a significant supplier for the North America market) they created counterfeit OxyContin pills, simply replacing the oxycodone with fentanyl. Because fentanyl is lethal in as little as two milligrams, overdose deaths began to rise. In response, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and RCMP joined forces in project Tainted, targeting pill producers and distributers in one of the provinces first large scale fentanyl investigations. Among the seizure of cash and drugs was nearly 25,000 counterfeit "greenies" 4 . By the time one of the key accused, Walter James McCormick, was sentenced in January, 2017, well over a thousand overdose deaths could be linked to fentanyl and the provincial government had declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency. Judge Bonnie Craig, recognizing the severe impact of fentanyl wrote "the lure of substantial profit for lower risk, with the awareness of the very real substantial risk to life that comes from trafficking in fentanyl must be counteracted with the threat of a significant jail sentence on conviction." She handed McCormick a 14 year sentence, lengthy by B.C. standards. 1 British Columbia Coroner Service, Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths in BC January 1, 2007 – January 31, 2017. 2 Making Evidence Matter : Prescription drug addiction is a major public health crisis. Irfan Dhalla and David Juurlink. (November 2012). 3 British Columbia Drug Surveillance and Intelligence Working Group. The Use and Abuse of Oxycodone. (December 22, 2010). 4 Police Focus on Deadly Fentanyl – Vancouver Police Department Press Release. (March 3, 2015).

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