A police force in Ontario is revamping the way officers handle street drugs after learning that a substance seized during a drug raid was liquid fentanyl, a highly powerful opioid that can be easily absorbed through the skin.
Hamilton police Det. Const. Adam Brown said he and other officers came across a vial of the drug during a raid in May, but at the time they believed it contained GHB — also known as a date-rape drug.
The members of the force's vice and drug unit wore protective gear to handle all the substances they came across during the raid, Brown said, which also included hash, marijuana, cocaine and oxycodone pills.
Police sent a sample of the suspected GHB to Health Canada for testing and the results showed it was actually liquid fentanyl.
"I was never afraid that if I got a little of this stuff on my skin that I would ever be worried about death — that was never a concern for me, now it is," Brown said. "It's a complete game changer for us and it's scary because you don't know what concentration this is."
Brown said Health Canada notified Hamilton police about its analysis in July, but he didn't realize its significance until after he returned from a recent conference about fentanyl hosted by Calgary police.
"It was from that conference that I put two and two together and reached out to Health Canada and an RCMP officer," Brown said. "It turns out fentanyl had never been seen in a liquid solution on the illicit market in Canada."
Liquid fentanyl is believed to be more powerful than the powder form of the drug, which is believed to have led to more than 1,000 fentanyl-related deaths across the country, although Canada lacks a central database with up-to-date numbers of overdose deaths.
Hamilton police are currently examining the force's drug-handling protocols and are set to revamp how front-line officers deal with unknown substances in wake of this recent discovery.
Front-line officers will likely wear eye protection and long, thick sleeves, two pairs of nitrile or latex gloves and a respiratory apparatus once the review is completed, Brown said.
Hamilton police are also talking to other forces across the country about carrying around naloxone, an antidote that can be used to reduce or reverse the effects of opioid exposure.
In September, the RCMP announced its front-line officers would begin carrying naloxone nasal spray after several officers became sick due to accidental exposure to powder fentanyl. Vancouver police said its front-line officers would also be carrying naloxone spray.
David Juurlink, a medical toxicologist with the University of Toronto, believes all first responders in Canada — be they police officers, firefighters or paramedics — should carry naloxone, both for themselves for accidental exposure or for users who have overdosed.
While Juurlink applauds the precautions police will be using for fentanyl in general, regardless of its form, he thinks "the prospect of an officer being accidentally poisoned by skin contact with liquid fentanyl seems like a very remote possibility."
"I think it's much more likely that people would be exposed through inhalation of fentanyl powder that is accidentally dispersed."
Fentanyl overdoses have become a major problem in British Columbia and Alberta, but experts said the drug has been making its way east.
The majority of the illicit fentanyl in Canada, Brown said, comes from China, usually ordered online and delivered through mail or courier. Pharmacy robberies for fentanyl patches also still remain a big problem, Brown said.
Juurlink said Mexico has also become a fentanyl hub as well as domestic production.
Anyone with a decent chemistry lab can produce fentanyl, Juurlink said.
He said it's unclear how many deaths occur in Ontario due to fentanyl overdose because the data doesn't exist, but said the country as a whole is on track for upwards of 3,000 opioid-related deaths this year.
Over the past year, Hamilton officers have come across a mix of fentanyl and heroin called "popcorn," but Brown said liquid fentanyl is so new that they don't yet know how people may be using it on the street or how dangerous it really is.