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N.L.'s drug supply is getting deadlier. Here's what experts say can be done

There's no solid plan yet to stop the spate of lethal overdoses in Newfoundland and Labrador. From policing to regulation, here's what could help.

New evidence shows drug seizures, prohibition may be contributing to deaths

hand holding box that says cocaine
At least 11 people have died of suspected drug overdoses in the last month in Newfoundland and Labrador, and harm reduction workers worry more may be on the way. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Tim Hogan remembers when the drugs started pouring into Newfoundland and Labrador.

Before the early 2000s, police saw only pockets of cocaine, scattered here and there. Then, suddenly, use of the illicit stimulant exploded.

"It was easier to get a gram of coke than it was a gram of weed, at the time," he said.

Hogan, a former sergeant with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary who worked in drug enforcement for years, says a new opiate soon followed the new, booming cocaine trade. Suddenly, it wasn't just pot and pills the police force was finding on street corners.

"We weren't even sure what was happening.… [Informants] were calling them 'cottons,'" he said. "There was cottons on the street."

The RNC soon discovered the addictive power of Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller.

"There was a rise in armed robberies, there was a rise in break and enters, and it was all connected to the Oxycontin craze," Hogan said. 

These days, police and harm reduction workers worry fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that's quickly replacing heroin as the drug of choice for dealers, is moving into the market. At least 11 people have died in the past month from cocaine or opiate-related overdoses.

As the provincial government scrambles to order more naloxone — a drug that reverses opiate overdoses — there remains a marked absence of policy to deal with what police have warned will become the norm.

The problem with policing?

Hogan and the RNC's drug enforcement team took a hardline approach to the drug trade in the mid-2000s, eventually launching operations Roadrunner and Razorback to diminish the amount and variety of substances reaching the streets. The cops mainly targeted organized crime rings who smuggled in cocaine from British Columbia. 

At times, it felt almost like a game of whack-a-mole.

"You're never going to get rid of it all," Hogan said. "But you can certainly have them looking over their shoulder, and wondering if you're going to be there."

Hogan's answer to the drug trade, once upon a time, was cracking down on the people bringing it in. But emerging evidence shows that historic response no longer works to keep the public safe from new, more powerful drugs like fentanyl.

Around 2010, "there was the overprescribing of opioids like Percocet, oxycodone, Oxycontin," explained Nick Boyce, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, an advocacy organization based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

When you have an unregulated drug supply, there's no control over it.- Nick Boyce

"We clamped down on those drugs, but we didn't put any other alternatives in place. Then people switched to the illicit market to manage pain or manage their physical dependencies."

Fentanyl — cheaper, stronger and easier to smuggle — became the drug of choice for dealers looking to capitalize on that demand, he said.

"That's simply a direct result of drug prohibition," Boyce said.

"You just need a few people in the lab tinkering with some chemicals and you've got your powder made. And it's a very potent powder. It's easy to transport. Whereas heroin, you need a whole field of poppies, a whole crew of people to produce it, and then you got to shift bricks of this stuff around the world."

Drug trends typically move from west to east through Canada, Boyce says, noting fentanyl reports have ramped up in Atlantic Canada in recent months.

"When you have an unregulated drug supply, there's no control over it," Boyce said. "Eventually you're going to start seeing all sorts of different drugs showing up in the supply."

So what works?

From a policing perspective, Hogan said the RNC saw great success with its organized crime operations before fentanyl arrived, targeting and indicting major players in the industry.

But a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows prohibition may lead to an increase in dangerous effects from drug use, pointing to a correlation between drug seizures and deaths.

"All the money and time and effort that we've spent on trying to stop drugs coming into the country, and border security and patrolling streets and going after dealers, none of it has stopped it," Boyce said.

Recent drug busts in Newfoundland may even have made the problem worse, he suggests. 

"What that has actually done, I think, is probably contributed to these recent overdoses," said Boyce. "People no longer have access to the supply that they're used to."

In the short term, Boyce is focused on spreading accurate information, promoting widespread naloxone distribution and urging dealers to handle their drugs more carefully to avoid cross-contamination. Fentanyl likely isn't ending up in cocaine on purpose, he said.

But stepping away from cracking down on drugs, he adds, should be Canada's longer-term approach: barring police from attending overdose calls, for instance, might encourage more people to seek emergency help without fearing arrest.

And regulation, he said, might eventually be the only answer.

"You can actually demonstrate a direct connection between police — law enforcement efforts — and [the] spike in overdoses," he said.

"It's really time to start thinking about treating other drugs in the same way that we do with alcohol."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's who previously worked in Vancouver and Toronto. News tip? Reach her at malone.mullin@cbc.ca.

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