By Jennifer Khil, March 28 2017 —
It’s not news that Alberta is facing a fentanyl crisis. As the death toll continues to rise, much-needed education and awareness programs are alarmingly overdue.
Fentanyl abuse is largely enabled by experimentation and unfamiliarity. The misinformation responsible for the deaths of an increasingly wider and younger population must be combated openly, directly and continuously. Both the government and everyday citizens have a role to play in this.
According to the CBC, 343 people in Alberta died of drug overdoses related to fentanyl last year — a third of those in the last quarter of 2016 — and the Calgary area has seen more deaths than any other region. The number of fentanyl related deaths in the province increased by nearly 40 per cent in 2015 to 2016. These deaths have spread outside of the usual urban cores. Those residing in suburban areas are increasingly participating in and falling victim to the new drug epidemic.
Fentanyl’s threat is mainly caused by ignorance. Its victims are not those who are familiar with the risks of taking drugs, but fall largely into the category of occasional or casual drug users — party-goers or students often aren’t aware that fentanyl has been mixed into drugs they are more familiar with. This is dangerous because fentanyl is 100 times more toxic than oxycodone, heroin or morphine. A dose as small as 0.25 mg is enough to kill an otherwise healthy adult. We need to educate as many people as possible about this issue.
Just last month, pills laced with fentanyl were deemed responsible in the overdose death of a student in Ottawa whose parents were confident that she was not a regular drug user. A lack of knowledge about the current crisis can lead students to make choices that end up being deadly. This lack of knowledge can be avoided.
Though some attempts at awareness have been made by the government in response to the rising crisis — Alberta Health Services has sponsored initiatives such as “fentanyl warning” posters in bathroom stalls at nightclubs and bars as well as a small number of harm reduction programs — the looming threat remains largely obscured. This is especially true for teens and students who may not regularly be exposed to information sources that aren’t afraid to seriously talk about using drugs.
Stronger efforts to make government-implemented awareness and education programs about the fentanyl epidemic more accessible are needed.
Accessing the existing information often requires a level of vigilance and responsibility not present in many young experimenters, and those who may not necessarily expect to be in contact with the drug in the first place.
Research shows that intervention-based programs at schools that foster interpersonal skills and draw attention to the social aspects of drug use are most effective in curbing dangerous substance abuse. The province must mould its crisis response to aim its effectiveness at its target populations.
In the meantime, regular drug users, party-goers, casual experimenters and students of all ages should be aware of the risks they take when ingesting illicit substances. If you foresee that you or someone you know might encounter a situation where fentanyl is being used, pick up a naloxone kit in confidentiality from almost any local pharmacy. These also contain information about the risks of this new emerging class of opioid drugs and what to do in case of an overdose. We must take the opioid crisis seriously and respond accordingly.