VANCOUVER — The extremely toxic drug carfentanil has been linked to two deaths in Alberta and might be present in B.C.’s illicit-drug supply.
Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced in a statement Friday that carfentanil had been detected in the deaths of two men in their 30s, one in the Edmonton area and the other in Calgary.
Carfentanil is an analogue of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been increasingly cut into the illicit drug supply. Fentanyl was detected in 60 per cent of 488 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. in the first eight months of 2016.
Carfentanil is 100 times deadlier than fentanyl, 10,000 times deadlier than morphine and is used as a tranquillizer for elephants and bears.
“An amount as small as a grain of sand could be lethal,” the government of Alberta said in a statement.
In June, Canada Border Services Agency officers at the Vancouver International Mail Centre seized a kilogram of carfentanil bound for Calgary.
A 24-year old Calgary man was charged.
Carfentanil was responsible for two overdoses in Winnipeg late last month, according to firefighters in the city.
Dr. William Schreiber, medical director for B.C.’s Provincial Toxicology Centre, said carfentanil has not yet been detected in blood samples sent to his lab.
The lab hasn’t acquired a “standard” of carfentanil, which is a pure sample used as a reference for analysis.
“We’re hoping to get something soon,” he said.
Alberta’s toxicology lab is believed to be the first in Canada to detect carfentanil in human blood and one of few in North America with the ability to do so, according to a statement by Dr. Elizabeth Brooks-Lim, acting chief medical examiner.
Schreiber said that while no carfentanil has been found in samples in B.C., the “extremely deadly” drug could already be present.
“We’ve had situations where people appear to have died from an overdose of drugs … but when we do the drug analysis, we don’t get drugs coming back that would account for their death,” he said.
“It is certainly possible that there are people who have died from drugs that we simply couldn’t pick up.
“It could be carfentanil, a fentanyl analogue or another type of drug, but we simply didn’t know it was there because we weren’t analyzing for it.”
Schreiber said his lab has seen many cases of people dying whose blood has shown traces of fentanyl along with cocaine or methamphetamine, suggesting non-opioid users might unwittingly overdosing on fentanyl, too.
He warns drug users against trusting the people who are cutting such substances into the illicit-drug supply.
“It’s worse than buyer beware,” Schreiber said. “I think people are playing Russian roulette right now. We’ve seen so many deaths from fentanyl overdoses and it’s just been an epidemic.”
In a statement, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said immediately administering naloxone can reverse an overdose of carfentanil but multiple doses may be required.
Allen Pruden, a primary-care paramedic with the B.C. Ambulance Service, told the Vancouver Sun that crews have recently used up to seven vials of naloxone to reverse drug overdoses in B.C.
A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that online suppliers in China are offering to ship carfentanil for as little as $2,750 US per kilogram.
Carfentanil is not a controlled substance in China, according to the report.
Staff Sgt. Darin Sheppard of the RCMP’s Federal Serious and Organized Crime Synthetic Drug Operations said no carfentanil has been detected since the parcel was seized June in Vancouver. But police remain vigilant.
“It’s obviously a concern based on its toxicity,” Sheppard said. “We’re obviously concerned that it could continue to arrive.”
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