EDMONTON - Police and health officials are raising the alarm about an illegal form of a painkilling drug linked to more than 100 deaths last year in Alberta.
"In the province of Alberta, fentanyl has contributed to or caused more than 100 deaths in 2014 (as indicated by preliminary numbers), which is a significant increase from six deaths in 2011," RCMP said Wednesday.
Illegally made fentanyl can be many times more powerful and toxic than morphine and can be mixed into other street drugs. It is sometimes sold to unsuspecting buyers as OxyContin or heroin.
Police say they have been seizing record amounts of fentanyl in communities around Alberta, including more than 88,000 tablets since last April.
RCMP Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan said organized crime is a driving force behind the making and marketing of the drug known on the street as "greenies."
"None of my police officers want to notify someone of the death of their loved one, especially when it could have been prevented," she said.
Fentanyl made by pharmaceutical companies is used to treat severe pain or to manage pain after surgery. Illegally made fentanyl is made in clandestine drug labs and sold in pills or powder.
Earlier this month the British Columbia Coroners Service said fentanyl was detected in about a quarter of 330 overdose deaths in the province last year, compared with five per cent in 2012.
Matthew Young with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse said his group issued an alert in June 2013 that illicit fentanyl made in organized crime labs posed a danger.
He said since then the centre has received anecdotal reports from across the country of fatal and non-fatal overdoses linked to non-pharmaceutical fentanyl.
Young said the centre is still working to compile hard information on deaths linked to the drug outside of B.C. and Alberta.
"We don't really have good fatality data from the other provinces yet," Young, a drug-use epidemiologist and policy analyst, said from Ottawa.
The message to street drug users is that they have no idea of what they are buying and there is a good chance that a substance could be much more toxic, with a greater chance of overdose.
Dr. Mark Yarema, medical director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service, said in some recent fentanyl deaths they have found many more drugs in the person's blood, including a veterinary medicine used on animals during castration operations.
"No matter what you think you are buying, when it comes to street drugs, you really don't ever know what you're getting."