Should fentanyl be an election issue?

While the drug's deadly toll rises, on a visit to B.C. today, the prime minister kept mum

MAC25_FENTANYL_POST04If Stephen Harper was going to say anything about fentanyl during the campaign, it would have been today, in Vancouver. Over the weekend, the city logged 16 overdoses related to the potentially deadly opiate, including six in a single hour, Sunday.

No one died. But the Saturday prior, a 17-year-old boy was not so lucky. He and a 16-year-old friend were rushed to B.C. Children’s Hospital after overdosing on counterfeit, green OxyContin pills, known as “fake 80s,” tainted with fentanyl in a park on Vancouver’s east side.

The younger of the pair survived. But Jack Bodie, a hockey player described by his parents as strong-willed, passionate and joyful, did not. In another high-profile incident two weeks earlier, Hardy and Amelia Leighton, the young, North Vancouver parents of a two-year-old boy were found dead after taking drugs contaminated with the powerful narcotic. Each had begun new jobs shortly before they died; they’d been planning a move to a new home, where Magnus, their toddler would have a yard to play.

RELATED: The king of all opiates, and a killer drug crisis: Inside the rise of fentanyl

For two years, four of B.C.’s biggest municipal police forces have been sounding the alarm over fentanyl. So have B.C.’s two biggest health authorities, Vancouver Coast Health and the Fraser Valley Health Authority. As have the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Two years ago, Perry Kendall, the province’s chief medical officer, issued a province-wide warning to emergency room doctors and paramedics, and met with the coroner’s office, police officers, public health officials and toxicologists, raising alarm over this “very, very, very potent narcotic,” as he describes it. Yesterday, B.C.’s chief medical officer and the province’s deputy health officer both issued new warnings to the public after the recent rash of fentanyl-linked overdose deaths.

Some jurisdictions have meanwhile initiated policy changes—mandating, for example a patch-for-patch program, requiring those prescribed fentanyl to return their used pain patch before being given a new one. This helps deal with abuse of prescription fentanyl, but not the illicit version manufactured by gangs and sold on the streets. As Maclean’s reported in a June cover story, fentanyl has proven remarkably difficult to control for this reason.

Ottawa has been strangely mum on the topic of fentanyl. Health Canada has said nothing. A handful of Western RCMP detachments have issued warnings; but there have been no statements from the national leadership. The Prime Minister has been mute on the subject. Instead, Harper, used an appearance this week in Ontario to speak out against the legalization of marijuana, proposed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He suggested the drug’s use is declining as a result of the government’s efforts, and, therefore, laws on cannabis will not be eased.

The focus on marijuana is “opportunistic,” says UBC political scientist Max Cameron, adding that he’s “constantly astounded by the hypocrisy and inconsistency” of the government’s drug policies. Harper is “trying to paint Trudeau as a pothead. If he and his government really cared about the victims of drug abuse, he would focus less on enforcement and prohibition—which plays to the Conservative base—and more on harm reduction.”

“To deal with the fentanyl crisis you need to get information to the public and resources need to be quickly available in the event of overdoses,” he adds. “And you need alternatives to street drugs that contain who-knows-what. That is why we have safe-injection sites—not something the Harper Conservatives want to talk about.”

Saskatoon’s Marie Agioritis also believes the federal government is abdicating its responsibility to hold provincial jurisdictions to account, and to promote a consistent, national strategy. This, she believes, is the best chance we have of saving lives.

Agioritis’s 19-year-old son, Kelly died Jan. 3 after taking a small portion of a counterfeit OxyContin pill laced with fentanyl. The death of her kind, funny, handsome son came as a shock. She and Kelly’s father, Don, had devoted the previous three years to getting their elder son Kayle clean—that included $35,000 in drug rehabilitation and harrowing days and nights as Kayle, 21, went through withdrawal. Kelly, by contrast, was their “easy” child: a rock of support to his dad, and a best friend to his mom.

Agioritis notes a wide range of policy options available to federal authorities, including mandating that all provincial jurisdictions track overdose deaths by drug type, to allow for smart planning. “First responders shouldn’t have to hold the ball, assuming trends.” The federal government oversees border control, she adds: “What are our border control regulations on research-grade fentanyl? Who can order it? What is prosecutable? Who can acquire a licence to possess it? Who can legally possess a pill press in this country? There is a crack in the armour—it’s getting in somewhere.”

Clearly, B.C. is in crisis, with 12 deaths relating to the powerful drug in the last month alone. “It’s time for a response,” says Agioritis, noting three overdose deaths in Saskatchewan blamed on the drug in the past two weeks, and 145 deaths in neighbouring Alberta since January. “This is at crisis levels. The federal government needs to act.”

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