Concerns about fentanyl are growing in the Gateway to the North after a public health crisis to the South.
Prince Albert Police Service (PAPS) Insp. Jason Stonechild said police here are concerned about a public health crisis similar to what happened in Saskatoon over the weekend happening in Prince Albert.
On Saturday, March 10, three people overdosed in the span of three hours in Saskatoon. Two died, one person was left in a coma, and three people were taken to hospital as a result of cocaine possibly tainted with fentanyl.
Three people were taken into custody who are believed to be involved in the distribution of the tainted cocaine and now face drug charges. There have been no further reported overdoses, however police could not confirm the trio were directly involved.
Although fentanyl has spread slower than the law enforcement community expected from the west coast, where the drug is shipped in from China, there is now a real concern about fentanyl being present in Prince Albert.
“A lot of the drugs we observe in Prince Albert, we can track back to coming through Saskatoon,” Stonechild said. “It’s very concerning to see [fentanyl] hit that community and it’s something we’re going to get in front of.”
Stonechild said PAPS, the Prince Albert Fire Department, Parkland Ambulance and public health are equipped to deal with a tainted drug scare, should such an event happen in Prince Albert.
“We have been preparing as an emergency response unit for years,” Stonechild said. “Could we handle what happened in Saskatoon? We are equipped, but could we get better? Absolutely.”
Following the overdoses, Saskatoon police took unprecedented steps by issuing a warning about fentanyl laced cocaine, a release which included a suspected drug dealers' phone number and their alleged street names before charges were laid.
Stonechild lauded the move as an important step to recognize the crisis as a public health emergency. PAPS also took note of a drug amnesty program implemented by the Saskatoon Police Service.
In the warning issued to the public over social media, Saskatoon Police Service said anyone who believed they had purchased tainted drugs were granted amnesty should they chose to turn their substances in.
Stonechild said PAPS is looking to implement a similar policy for members of the public and officers later this week, however amnesty is already being offered in a sense.
“If somebody has narcotics and they’re concerned about the source, they’re concerned about the safety, they can contact us and surrender the drugs, and we’ll take care of it properly, with no fear of prosecution,” Stonechild said.
He noted the amnesty rules are intended for casual users — not people who are involved in the drug trade. Drug suppliers who try and take advantage of the program can still be prosecuted.
While it may not be the final solution to the opioid crisis, Stonechild said another piece to the puzzle when it comes to addressing Canada’s opioid crisis is the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act. The act also offers limited legal protection to those who experience or report an overdose.
“If somebody is out in the public and they observe a friend where they feel like they are overdosing, they should have the knowledge that they are safe from prosecution should they decide to call police for assistance,” Stonechild said.
PAPS proactive in officer, public safety
As officers are frontline workers, the risk of being exposed to fentanyl is substantially greater than it is to members of the public.
RCMP in British Columbia previously released a video which showed two officers becoming sick after inhaling or touching fentanyl while on duty.
In order to prevent the same thing from happening in Prince Albert, Stonechild said officers have policies and safety procedures to follow should they respond to a call where fentanyl or other opiates are present.
Two officers respond to any call where fentanyl or other opioids are suspected to be involved and one must be trained in administering naloxone, a spray which combats the effects of fentanyl.
Stonechild said 25 officers were certified to administer, carry and understand naloxone last year. While there hasn’t been any similar opportunities in the last year, PAPS intends to organize more training for frontline members in the early summer.
Just because an officer does not have the appropriate training, it doesn’t prevent them from being able to look out for the public. Stonechild said it’s up to responding officers to decide whether or not naloxone is administered to someone who’s overdosed.
“Our policy extensively states that in [certain] circumstances the training is not necessary,” Stonechild said. “We have naloxone kits available to all police members, frontline, and in specialized units and we’re going to continue to make sure [kits] are readily available.”
When possible, he said its preferred paramedics or trained professionals administer the spray to save a patient.
He said the Prince Albert Fire Department has a hazardous material team with suits to protect responders from fentanyl exposure. The team helps police preserve and process evidence when necessary.
Officers also carry test strips which tell officers what kind of substance is present when they respond to drug calls. Stonechild explained the strips use a chemical reaction to change colour based on what substances are present however the tests “are not scientific or specific.”
One tool which would help make police officers job easier and PAPS has their eye on, are known as Ion Mobility Spectrometry, or ion scanners. Stonechild explained the portable devices can accurately detect substances like fentanyl which may be cut in drugs, however the units are expensive and he was unsure if any exist in Saskatchewan.
- With files from 650CKOM and the Canadian Press
On Twitter: @BryanEneas
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