A medication intended to be used to knock out large animals, such as elephants, appears to have been detected in street drugs seized in Nova Scotia.
The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said Friday that tests on drugs seized by police earlier this month showed a high probability of containing carfentanil, an opioid far more potent than fentanyl.
“This would be the first time identifying carfentanil in Nova Scotia and we think it’s very important that Nova Scotians are made aware of this,” said Strang.
He and Don Spicer, the province’s director of public safety, would not say the type of drugs that contained the carfentanil, nor the location of the seizure.
“It could be in any other substance,” said Spicer. “We don’t want people to think that, ‘I’m safe if I take this, but I’m not safe if I take this one.'”
Not intended for human use
Cafentinal has never been licensed or approved for human use, said Strang.
“It is used as an anesthetic for large animals — and I emphasize large animals — in veterinary medicine.”
That means the drug is far more potent than other forms of opioids. Just a very small amount is required to suppress a person’s breathing and put them into an overdose, he said.
The discovery heightens the importance of people knowing that “it’s not just opioids, any pill or powdered street drug has the potential to be contaminated,” said Strang.
Plans to make naloxone free
While the first advice is to avoid using street drugs, Strang said if people are going to use them then it is now even more important that they are not alone, that someone has a naloxone kit and that people call 911 immediately if they suspect someone is overdosing.
Strang also stressed that new federal legislation ensures fellow drug users who are responding to an overdose won’t be prosecuted for simple drug possession or violating probation.
All EHS and police crews now have access to naloxone and rural emergency first responders are also being supplied and trained to use it, said Strang. The province is also working to make it available publicly through a variety of sources, including pharmacies where it will soon be free.
“Right now people can get it, but they have to pay for it.”
53 overdose deaths in 2016
Strang, who is co-chair of the federal opioid special advisory committee, said the federal government and all provinces and territories are working together to try to address the issue and prepare for potential increased use.
In 2016, there were 53 fatal overdoses in Nova Scotia, four of which involved illicit fentanyl. This year the overdose total, as of the end of May, is 23 deaths, although some are still awaiting confirmation, said Strang.
He said the government is working at making overdose information available publicly online.