W5 investigates: Deadly epidemic follows illicit trade in pain killer fentanyl
It seems no family is guaranteed immunity from the appalling possibility that one of their members could die from an overdose of fentanyl, an opioid drug police and health care professionals are calling the most powerful and addictive drug to be ever seen on a Canadian street.
In its legally-prescribed form, fentanyl is used across Canada to control chronic pain in time-release patches. But in Western Canada, illicitly-made fentanyl pills, sold as fake OxyContin, are killing hundreds of people.
One of those was Conner Clark, a 21-year old Calgarian who had just started his career as an engineer. He died in 2013 after taking just one pill. He thought he was taking OxyContin, also a prescription pain killer that’s used illegally to get high.
“It was same shape, same colour, easily mistaken,” said his mother, Yvonne. “And it happened quickly, as far as we know. He just fell asleep and didn’t wake up.”
The pills are manufactured by organized crime, dyed green to look like OxyContin. But the fake version is far more potent - fifty to a hundred times more deadly than morphine and five to fifteen times more deadly than heroin. Just two milligrams, the equivalent of a few grains of salt, are enough to kill and there’s no way of telling which pills contain a fatal dose.
“You’re playing Russian roulette with your life every time you take a tablet,” said Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta of the Calgary Police Service drug unit. “I think we’ve all made chocolate chip cookies at home and realize that there’s going to be cookies on that sheet that are going to have hot spots, more chocolate chips. If you take a hot spot tablet, you’re dead.”
“Maybe you’ll get lucky a couple of times,” said Sparla McCann, whose son, Rory, died in January, 2015 after taking fentanyl for the first time. “Rory didn’t get lucky. Not even once.”
Rory was one of 45 Calgarians who accidently died from lethal doses of fentanyl in the first six months of 2015. Provincewide, 145 Albertans fell victim to the drug over the same period.
“This year, it’s off the charts,” said Dr. Mark Yarema, an emergency room doctor in Calgary who also runs Alberta’s poison crisis hotlines. “It is by far and away the worst epidemic that I’ve seen in the six years that we’ve been here.”
Fentanyl is not just taking lives. It is also causing chaos and pain to the families of addicts. Joel DeRaaf’s son, Corbin, was so dependent on the drug he hid the pills in his home.
“It was in my house with little kids,” said Joel. “When I think about that it makes me really angry. It really does. He subjected his siblings to some very dangerous stuff.”
Even the death of his best friend, Rory McCann, couldn’t penetrate Corbin’s hunger for the drug.
“I thought that I was so far gone already that I would never be able to get sober.”
Then he saw the effect Rory’s death had on the McCann family and realized his addiction to fentanyl was also tearing his family apart. He agreed to go into rehab, but in June 2015, after five clean months, he relapsed and nearly died. Now Corbin is clean again, but he knows the lure of fentanyl and has a stark warning for anyone tempted to try those little green pills.
“Do this drug, you’re gonna die,” he said. “That’s all I can say. There’s no way around it.”