The numbers are terrifying.
Nelson Police Chief Paul Burkart has the B.C. Coroners Service annual report sitting on his desk, as well as alarming Interior Health statistics that show fentanyl has come to the Kootenays.
In 2016 there were 914 overdose deaths in B.C., a record number for the province and more than double the total for 2015.
“It certainly does scare me,” Burkart told the Star.
“We see the numbers across the province and across Canada, and it’s here. It’s caused overdoses, it’s caused deaths and it needs to be dealt with.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain medication which has flooded the market recently. It can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s one of a variety of new drugs that are routinely claiming Canadian lives.
That’s why he’s created a fentanyl task force as part of the Police Chief’s Diversity Advisory Committee, inviting all sectors of the community to come together to address the situation before it gets out hand. In the past they’ve dealt with issues such as mental health, and now they’re throwing their weight at fentanyl.
“These are representatives from pretty well every organization in the city. We’re talking first responders, police and fire and ambulance. Then we’ve got Selkirk College, Kootenay Lake Hospital, the school district, Our Daily Bread and all kinds of social services groups such as ANKORS and Nelson CARES.”
In the Kootenay Boundary region last year there were 10 overdose deaths, up from six in 2015 and three in 2014. And that’s a jump that Burkart finds alarming.
“We’re on the low end here, but we’re still sitting at about 12.9 overdose deaths per 100,000. If you look at Vancouver it’s 31.9 and Central Vancouver Island is 21, and Thompson-Caribou is 27.4, so we’re not up to those numbers yet,” he said.
“But we see these statistics and we know something has to be done.”
The meeting will be 1 p.m. on Feb. 1 at the Nelson Legion, and anyone in the community concerned about issues surrounding fentanyl and overdose deaths is welcome to attend. The meeting will be focused on who can do what, and when.
He said “anybody who feels they can contribute” should attend.
“It’s going to be a very multi-faceted approach. There’s an education component. We’re not concerned just about the heavy users but we also have to be concerned about the college or high school user who may think they’re taking ecstasy and in reality it’s fentanyl.”
They also need to educate parents, friends and business owners who may encounter someone having an overdose. Recently the police responded to a situation where someone was locked in a business’ bathroom, an issue he figures they’ll face again.
And however local residents feel about drug users, Burkart would like to put aside the stigma surrounding drug use and find compassion for those most vulnerable.
“I don’t have to be a police officer to say this: these are human beings. They are family members, they are sons and daughters, and the bottom line is we have to be taking care of the weakest people in our community. As police we’re not medically trained, but if we can assist with naloxone we can do that.”
Nalaxone is a medication that can quickly block the effect of opioids, especially in an overdose.
They’re not required by law to carry it or use it, but Burkart has made the executive decision to incorporate it into their policing.
“Our choice is to do the best we can at preventing some of these deaths, and that requires us to go outside what’s normally our comfort zone. It comes down to care for other human beings.”
Burkart has strong but mixed feelings about harm reduction, especially after spending his career on the forefront of North America’s War on Drugs.
“The common person is going to have a tough time with this. They’re now taxing every resident in Vancouver with a .5 increase in their property taxes to address the fentanyl crisis, that was a decision made by their mayor and council, and that’s a lot of money.”
Could that same thing happen here?
“At least short term, I think this is something that needs to be done. Once other things like education kick in, maybe we won’t need to have safe injection sites, but right now it’s something that has to be considered.”
Burkart said local authorities are considering establishing a safe injection site or maybe a mobile site that travels around to local communities. Interior Health is already looking into the situation.
“This is outside the police now. This is a community issue. Enforcement’s not going to do it. We’re stepping out of an enforcement role and looking at more of a harm reduction model.”
So if someone’s overdosing, they want you to call.
“We used to go to every overdose. Now we are encouraging them to phone when they’re with somebody. We don’t want them to think we’re coming to enforce. We want them to call 9-1-1.”
In other words: “We’re here to help, not to judge.”
And what about enforcement?
“We certainly will enforce. We’re targeting fentanyl dealers and traffickers. How well that works, though, is not great. It’s tough to be out there enforcing trafficking laws when it’s so easy to get, but they are looking at the rules around importation. The reality is, though, it’s going to come.”
He said if they get information about dealers locally, they’re going to go after them with all they have.
“It’s not marijuana. It simply isn’t. It’s a thing where someone could be selling 5 tablets and we could have five resulting deaths. We’ve seen this in Kelowna where they had one overdose and three deaths from one bad batch.”
He’s committed to making sure that won’t happen here, and he has a message for anyone planning to sell fentanyl.
“You’re putting people’s lives at risk, and if we can prove that you knew what you were selling, the least of your problems will be us arresting you for simple trafficking charge. I don’t think it will be long before we start looking at charges beyond trafficking, maybe manslaughter or criminal negligence causing death.”
Put more simply: “What you’re selling might kill somebody. Get a real job.”