Police chiefs across Ontario are launching a public awareness campaign to highlight the risks associated with fentanyl, in response to an alarming spike in overdose deaths linked to the highly toxic opioid.
At a news conference on Tuesday, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police plans to unveil a social-media campaign, #FaceTheFentanyl, and a website with a ticker on the home page, tracking the number of overdose fatalities.
The campaign marks a fundamental shift in how police deal with illicit drug abuse. The association said the chiefs plan to work in partnership with public-health officials and community groups to help prevent "needless deaths" from fentanyl overdoses.
The partnership approach is a recognition that fentanyl is a health and public-safety problem, one that cannot be tackled just with enforcement, Joe Couto, a spokesman for the association, said in an interview. Police, he said, have a role to play in both preventing overdose deaths and arresting drug traffickers.
"We are seeing fentanyl becoming a bit of a drug of choice," Mr. Couto said. "Part of our mandate as police is to try to work with community partners to prevent the use of drugs from actually killing people."
Fentanyl has become the leading cause of opioid deaths in Ontario for the first time since Canada's prescription-painkiller crisis began more than a decade ago. The Globe and Mail has reported that fentanyl overdoses accounted for one of every four opioid-related fatalities in Ontario in 2014. Fatal overdoses linked to fentanyl climbed 28 per cent to 173 in 2014, according to preliminary figures from Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner.
Law enforcement and medical experts worry that the province is on track to emulate British Columbia and Alberta, where figures for 2015 show a sharp increase in deaths linked to fentanyl.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. It was developed as a prescription painkiller but gained popularity as a street drug after OxyContin – a widely used brand-name version of the opioid oxycodone – was removed from the market in Canada in 2012.
Many of the overdose deaths in Western Canada have been linked to a bootleg version of fentanyl. Drug traffickers smuggle in pure fentanyl powder from chemical companies in China and prepare it for street sale by cutting it with fillers and other drugs in clandestine labs.
In Ontario, the fentanyl problem is largely confined to the diversion of prescription-grade patches to the street. But a spike in heroin overdoses in several communities in recent months has sparked fears that bootleg fentanyl has arrived in Ontario.
"It's the one we are talking about the most and seeing the least," said Detective Jeffrey Ross of the Toronto police drug squad.
Just last week, police in Waterloo Region announced that fentanyl has been identified in recent drug seizures.
Toronto Councillor Joe Cressy will be on hand at the police chiefs' news conference on Tuesday. As chair of the city's drug strategy, he is spearheading an initiative to open three supervised drug-injection sites. What's needed, Mr. Cressy said, is an "all hands on deck" approach to dealing with increasing fentanyl use. "We need to both improve the health and safety of people who use drugs and do so in a way that ensures our communities are safe," he said.