The potentially deadly opioid carfentanil has been found in a blue powder presented for testing at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre on Wednesday.“Carfentanil is the most toxic of all the opioid analogs,” said Rob Boyd, director of Sandy Hill’s Oasis program, the harm-reduction site where a client presented the drug to be checked for dangerous additives. “This changes the risk environment.”Oasis is one of a only handful of harm reduction clinics in Canada that can test drugs for opioids on site. The testing, using a mass spectrometer about the size of a laser printer, takes only a few minutes and can detect even trace amounts of 18 substances, including fentanyl and its analogues.“It’s a real challenge when people are buying drugs from an unregulated supply,” said Boyd. “By issuing an alert, we want people to take additional precautions. Don’t mix drugs, make sure there’s someone on hand to call 911 and there are more doses of naloxone (the fentanyl antidote) on hand.”Boyd said he was able to notify the Overdose Prevention’s Task Force and the Harm Reduction Coalition as well as emergency rooms and paramedics that carfentanil had been detected very soon after the blue powder was presented for testing. Then he tweeted the news for the general public.“Drug checking is invaluable. We had that information out to the community in half an hour,” he said. “It’s really important to get this out to the hard-to reach people, those who wouldn’t usually be reaching out to a source like us.”Carfentanil is an opioid used to tranquilize very large animals, such as elephants. It is about 100 times more toxic than the synthetic opioid fentanyl and 10,000 times more toxic than morphine. It can be deadly in very small amounts.Boyd said the client who presented the blue powder for testing referred to it as “blue fentanyl.” Powdered drugs can be inhaled or mixed with water to be injected with a syringe.“Fentanyl itself is white. We suspect people are putting dye in it. Last year, we had a lot of purple,” said Boyd.Learning that a street drug contained carfentanil is no big surprise to Wendy Muckle, the executive director of Inner Ottawa City Health, which saw a cluster of overdoses last weekend. Staff reversed 23 drug overdoses between Friday and Monday. This was unusual because this was not the time period in which clients receive social assistance cheques, which often coincides with heavier use of supervised services.
Wendy Muckle is executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health.
Errol McGihon /
“In theory, it should have been a really quiet time,” said Muckle.Clients have also needed more doses of naloxone (the fentanyl antidote) to reverse an overdose. “Last week, in one case, we needed nine doses of naloxone to get any reaction. Back in 2017 and early 2018, people were being reversed with one dose, two as a backup,” she said. “It’s clear that the drug supply is getting more toxic, not less.”Kira Mandryk, supervisor of Ottawa Public Health’s harm reduction services, said drug users have received the message that street drugs may be adulterated with deadly substances.“We’re seeing that people don’t use alone, they’re using smaller amounts and they’re using test doses. We’ve also noticed an increase in requests for naloxone training,” she said.Carfentanil was previously found in a rock of crack cocaine tested by Sandy Hill last June. But that doesn’t mean carfentanil and other fentanyl analogs have not been circulating in the interim. Ten to 15 per cent of Oasis clients ask to have their drugs checked, said Boyd. (About 30 per cent of clients use pharmaceutical drugs.) In December, Oasis reported that 56 samples contained fentanyl or one of its analogs.The carfentanil warning came only a month after five people in Ottawa died after consuming a fentanyl-type drug that had apparently been mixed with cocaine. That news came only days before the province announced it would no longer fund Ottawa Public Health’s Consumption and Treatment Services at 179 Clarence St., one of four supervised consumption sites in the city.The Clarence site remains open. On April 15, the Ottawa Board of Health supported a motion to allow its chairman, Coun. Keith Egli, to negotiate or seek funding from various levels of government which can include both municipal and provincial governments. In the meantime, Ottawa Public Health is absorbing the cost.There are three supervised sites within a few blocks of each other in the ByWard Market area. All are functioning at capacity, say Muckle and Mandryk.Knowing that a street drug contains a dangerous substance can change drug consumption patterns, studies have shown. A pilot drug checking program in Vancouver used test strips and other technology to identify fentanyl in street drugs. The pilot study found that when people knew their drugs contained fentanyl, they were 10 times more likely to lower the dose, reducing the possibility of an overdose.But spectrometers are expensive and require a technician. Health Canada has issued a drug testing technology challenge to find a rapid, accurate, simple and low-cost testing device in the hopes of reducing the risk of overdoses by proving information to drug users.Why would illicit drug supplier sell a product they know is potentially deadly? “It’s a weird business. Why would you kill your customers? It really doesn’t matter because there’s more coming. We get new people all the time,” said Muckle.“People should be able to test their own drugs. But it makes even more sense if people were getting clean drugs. When the water supply is contaminated, you get another supply of water.”ALSO IN THE NEWS:MNRF flood warning continues for Renfrew County amid rainfall warning for coming daysRussell County OPP seek help in identifying body pulled from river two years agoANALYSIS: A city with communities under water had little choice but to declare a ‘climate emergency’