For police officers and other emergency first responders, dealing with illicit pharmaceutical drugs has made their jobs infinitely more dangerous.
Sgt. Eric Boechler, with the RCMP federal serious organized crime section in Vancouver, says the lethal potency of fentanyl and carfentanil at minuscule amounts of exposure is a hazard-level game-changer in their professions.
“As first responders, we have a job to do and we want to help people, but we also want to go home to our families at night,” Boeschler said at a workshop in Kelowna on Monday. First responders gathered in the city to learn the latest information and insights related to responding to the fentanyl overdose crisis and the production of fentanyl and carfentanil in tablet form compounds.
Since the fentanyl epidemic began to take hold across the province last year, Boeschler said the equipment required by drug enforcement officers has expanded.
It’s not just a gun and a badge anymore. Officers now have to consider having protective gloves, be armed with nasal naloxone to deal with an overdose, wear long sleeved shirts to avoid opiate skin contact, wear some form of respiratory protection and have safety goggles.
And those protective measures can be expensive, adding more pressure to policing budget costs.
“We have had officers come in contact and require emergency response assistance to bring them out of a dangerous situation,” Boechler said.
“The potential for overdose is real. Our reality is the possibility of being shot, the danger of being hit by a car, approaching a vehicle stop can be dangerous, and now on top of that exposure to these drugs in small amounts can kill us as well.
“Even the bad guys are wearing personal respiratory protection equipment now when mixing this stuff up. But then they put it out on the street, overdoses become common place because of a bad mixture.”
Boechler said B.C. has become the frontline for how to deal with the fentanyl crisis.
“We are at the forefront in North America and probably the world. We have become experts on this subject matter because we have had to deal with it,” he said.
“I have gone to workshops with DEA and law enforcement officials in Washington, Los Angeles and New York City. We developed a web site through the Justice Institute of BC web site on dealing with fentanyl and it has had more than 200,000 hits. People look to us for developing protocols for how to keep ourselves safe.”
But safety is one aspect of the illicit drug market production of fentanyl and carfentanil tablet compounds that doesn’t exist, creating the danger of exposure for both first responders and drug takers.
He says in illicit drug market labs, there are no forms of quality control, no avoidance measures for inadvertent contamination.
“Drug traffickers are not pharmacists. They just put something on the market and if people die, then they try a different mixture,” he said.
While he says fentanyl has shown up in marijuana and cocaine, he says police generally believe that is evidence of poor drug mixing allocation rather than being done intentionally.
“Mixing a stimulant like cocaine with a depressant like fentanyl doesn’t make much sense. I think it’s more a case of mixing fentanyl with the wrong bag of powder.”
For the pharmaceutical buyer looking for an off-market alternative, Boechler says unless it comes from a doctor or legitimate pharmaceutical pill provider, consider it counterfeit no matter how legitimate it might look.
“If it’s not legitimate, you might be taking death,” Boechler said.
Carfentanil laced pill compounds have become more common place in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside street scene in recent months, he added.
“Carfentanil is so incredibly dangerous. It is used as a tranquilizing agent for large animals such as elephants. Even from a medical health care perspective, we don’t even use it on human beings.
“It’s an illicit way to make a bigger buck. The drug traffickers don’t care about people taking it, they are just mixing compounds to make more money.”
He uses the comparison of a $20 bill or business card, each which weigh about a gram. A fatal dose of fentanyl is 1/500 of that weight, and a fatal dose of carfentanil is smaller yet at 1/100 of that.
“It’s literally grains of salt difference and if you imagine a drug trafficker mixing it into a compound, unfortunately it will get screwed up.”