Calgary had the most fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta last year, prompting SAIT and other post-secondary institutions to bring in an antidote to counter the effects of the powerful opioid.
The number of deaths in Alberta related to fentanyl rose to 270 in 2015 from six in 2011, said Rachelle Suing, health clinic supervisor at SAIT Health Services. There were 81 people in Calgary compared to 65 in Edmonton in 2015 whose deaths were attributed to fentanyl.
With the rise in deaths, SAIT and other campuses have brought in naloxone, which blocks the effects of fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller reportedly stronger than morphine.
“[Naloxone] kits have been made available to support the Alberta Health Services because Alberta is in a fentanyl crisis,” Suing said.
“The age of the deaths is between ages 24 to 35, so you can really see that it is targeting our student population.
“Alberta Health Services have looked into it and have long-term plans for it, but because there is a crisis right now, they have to do something about it right now,” Suing said.
Reid Southwick, a reporter with the Calgary Herald, has been covering the crisis closely for about a year.
“It was extremely alarming to me, the [number] of deaths in Alberta,” he said.
“With how many people were dying from a single drug, the Herald allowed me to investigate how this happened, where the drugs came from and who the victims were.”
The victims were of all ages, backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds, Southwick found.
“It didn’t really discriminate, but there happens to be a trend among young people, especially young, suburban kids in Calgary,” he said.
Suing said she believes that the reason the number of overdoses has increased is because of how readily available the drug is on the street.
The fentanyl a person can buy off the streets is not regulated; a fatal dose can be equal to two grains of salt. Because of this, people don’t know how much fentanyl is in one tablet, unlike those used in hospitals for pain relief.
“It’s probably a reality early on that those who are using the drug had no idea what they were taking,” Southwick said.
“Either they were told they were taking something else or it was laced with something they were taking and ended up overdosing.”
It doesn’t really discriminate, but there happens to be trend among young people, especially young, suburban kids in Calgary. – Reid Southwick
For dealers, the profit margin is high, he said. The pills are made cheaply in China and then sold in Calgary for $20 a pill.
“It’s highly addictive,” Southwick said. “Users who have taken it have said it’s the best high they’ve ever had.
“It has become increasingly popular, so when you’ve packaged that all together, it’s obvious why it’s become so popular.”