Canada is currently dealing with an ongoing fentanyl crisis, and the growing number of deaths have spiked serious concern from Health Canada. The ministry has concluded that nearly 2,800 overdose deaths have occurred due to fentanyl overdoses this past year alone.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, typically administered intravenously or through transdermal patches for chronic pain management. Developed in the 1960s by Paul Janssen, a noted Belgian physician, fentanyl has become an increasingly popular prescription. However, its efficacy and addictive nature has resulted in widespread abuse. An overdose in fentanyl can result in severe respiratory depression, sleep apnea, and death. Just 3 milligrams will kill an average-sized adult, and according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), it is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
After the United States, Canada is the world’s second largest consumer of prescription opioids. The relative ease with which fentanyl can be prescribed in Canada has led to high demand for the drug, mainly as a consequence of dependency. Some individuals, when they are no longer able to access the drug through their doctor, turn to street distributors.
Quebec, meanwhile, has a unique history of illicit substance distribution by biker gangs and the mob. According to some sources, fentanyl may have entered the local drug market accidentally, due to improper drug manufacturing practices. Dealers often use the same tools to cut different drugs; unfortunately, as fentanyl is extremely potent, trace amounts can be mixed unintentionally with other substances, with potentially fatal results. As a result, communities across Quebec must prepare for the fact that fentanyl could be found in more popular drugs such as MDMA, PCP, cocaine, heroin, alprazolam (Xanax), and ketamine.
As of August 2017, there have been over 90 drug overdoses in Montreal, 10 of which have been definitively linked to fentanyl. Mayor Denis Coderre currently “[wants] to speak to everyone concerned by this situation,” and has launched a pilot program to train more first responders. Meanwhile, the Quebec Ministry of Health is working on legislation to increase the availability of naloxone, a substance that counteracts the effects of a fentanyl overdose.
McGill has yet to offer any resources or information on the growing fentanyl crisis in Canada, or methods by which students can keep themselves safe. However, Hashana Perera, Director of Student Health Services, did acknowledge the crisis during a press conference on September 14. She claimed that Student Health Services will provide naloxone and drug-testing kits for students as soon as Quebec legislation permits.
Sonya Bharadwa, Executive Director of McGill Student Emergency Response Team (MSERT), emailed The Daily about measures that the university is taking to address the crisis.
“As of now, the only first responders that have access to and training to use naloxone are paramedics,” explained Bharadwa. “Recently, the government of Quebec announced a plan to expand the scope of people allowed to administer the medicine.”
“As of now, the only first responders that have access to and training to use naloxone are paramedics.”
“MSERT is working with Student Healwth Services,” Bharadwa continued, “as they are currently building a training module for naloxone that they can offer McGill community members. They will also help us find a supplier for naloxone so that MSERT can carry it. Until then, our current protocol is to call 911 for suspected overdoses, monitor vital signs, and provide stabilizing care until EMS arrives. In terms of fentanyl safety, we hope that in addition to the clinic, which does have injectable doses of naloxone, both floor fellows and MSERT will receive naloxone training, as this will provide nearly a 24-hour response plan.”
It is well known that students are highly susceptible to recreational drug use, especially when exposed to environments such as student residences. Growing concern over the possibility of fentanyl overdoses on campus has increased the demand for naloxone training to be given to McGill floor fellows.
When investigating protocols concerning fentanyl overdoses in residences, a floor fellow who wished to remain anonymous told The Daily that “administering naloxone to students in residences is strictly forbidden, as it poses too high of a liability risk to the University.”
“In my opinion,” the floor fellow continued, “this policy is incredibly shortsighted and ignorant of naloxone’s purpose and mechanism of action. In light of the recent surge in opioid overdoses throughout Montreal, floor fellows have been pushing Student Housing and Hospitality Services to facilitate workshops and training related to the fentanyl crisis and overdose first aid.”
“This policy is incredibly shortsighted and ignorant of naloxone’s purpose and mechanism of action. In light of the recent surge in opioid overdoses throughout Montreal, floor fellows have been pushing Student Housing and Hospitality Services to facilitate workshops and training related to the fentanyl crisis and overdose first aid.”
Another floor fellow encouraged colleagues to take a free naloxone administration workshop offered by a local organization unaffiliated with the university. Many floor fellows have already taken this training. Despite being well-equipped with knowledge of harm-reduction and certified in administering naloxone, however, they are officially prohibited from taking any action to prevent a fentanyl overdose from becoming fatal.