Ten times more potent than fentanyl. Five thousand times more potent than heroin. Ten thousand times more potent than morphine. A dose the size of a grain of sand can be fatal.
The statistics surrounding carfentanil, the newest and most powerful opioid to emerge in the Alberta drug market, are alarming. And so far, most of it is popping up in Lethbridge and southern Alberta; seized drugs in three ALERT operations between January and May 2018 are suspected of containing carfentanil.
Staff Sgt. Jason Walper of ALERT Lethbridge’s organized crime and gang team says carfentanil began showing up on the street level in southern Alberta during the summer of 2017, and since then, it has only become more prevalent, turning up alongside fentanyl in traffic stops and other investigations.
“When our teams talk to users and addicts, people who were arrested and involved in trafficking or in possession of these drugs, they ask them regularly, ‘Why are you taking this, knowing the potential for overdose and death?’” Walper says. “And the response they’re receiving is, ‘Because this is what’s available.’”
Aside from the risks to drug users, though, Walper says that the emergence of carfentanil and fentanyl has contributed to a spike in property-related crimes in Lethbridge, including break-and-enters and theft. “Whether they trade that property to convert it to money or trade it straight across to obtain drugs, certainly it causes concerns for the community as a whole,” he says.
To that end, ALERT partnered with the Lethbridge Police Service between May and July 2017 for Project Street Sweeper, which was successful in targeting chronic property crime offenders. Dozens of people were arrested, hundreds of charges were laid and over $400,000 in stolen property, including 24 stolen vehicles, was recovered.
But it’s not just the community of Lethbridge that is affected. ALERT investigations have linked the drug to the Blood First Nation Reserve and several other southern Alberta communities. Alberta Health Services reported a large increase in opioid overdoses in its South Zone last year.
“It just comes back to the fact that these users don’t know what they’re taking,” Walper says. “They’re taking a cocktail of mixed drugs that may contain carfentanil. Sometimes the dosage is something they’re able to consume and not overdose. But because the fentanyl and the carfentanil is not mixed and produced to the same standards of a commercial drug, it could cause them to overdose when they take another dose of the same size that has a greater concentration.”
But he adds that ALERT’s integrated model allows his team to work collaboratively with RCMP detachments, the Blood Tribe Police Service and other law enforcement agencies to combat complex issues like this. “It gives us a better understanding of the local issues and priorities for these different agencies. Criminals don’t have any boundaries as far as where they operate; if they find it tougher to operate within the city of Lethbridge because of enforcement action, then they’re going to reach out and move into some of the outlying areas like the Blood First Nation or Fort Macleod or Cardston. As long we’re all working together, they’re not going to be able to hide in these outlying regions.”
Meanwhile, the prevalence of firearms is also on the rise – not specifically because of carfentanil, but more due to the drug trade in general. Traffickers use guns to protect themselves, to intimidate rivals, and even to carry out robberies.
That concerns Walper, because it poses an inherent risk to law enforcement personnel trying to execute search warrants on these subjects. “These drug traffickers are also potentially drug abusers, and if they’re consuming drugs, that increases the unpredictable behavior when we go to arrest or have to do surveillance on them,” he says.
But, he adds, that’s not going to stop ALERT and its partners from cracking down on those traffickers, especially when it comes to potentially deadly drugs like carfentanil.
“We’re seeing a lot more information regarding carfentanil and fentanyl. Any time our teams are looking toward new investigations, and doing risk assessments on which investigations we should undertake, we certainly give more weight to those files that involve carfentanil and fentanyl,” he says. “Those files are worth taking a look at because of the significant risk to the public.”