05/15/2016 06:00 EDT | Updated 05/16/2017 01:12 EDT

It's meth, not fentanyl, that's the biggest challenge for cops in Medicine Hat

MEDICINE HAT, Alta. — The fentanyl crisis that's sweeping across North America destroying lives and killing hundreds has yet to hit hard the southeastern corner of Alberta, police say.

Instead, it's methamphetamine that's the scourge in Medicine Hat.

"I wouldn't say fentanyl is the biggest problem," said Staff Sgt. Jason Graham, who is in charge of the Medicine Hat police organized crime unit. "I would say methamphetamine for us is a huge problem. We're seeing a spike in our methamphetamine use here in Medicine Hat."

Graham said a few years ago methamphetamine accounted for about 10 per cent of drug seizures in the city of 61,000. Now it makes up roughly half of the drugs police find.

The Trans-Canada Highway that rolls through Medicine Hat serves as a pipeline for shipping drugs from east to west, but the city itself seems to be a few years behind the trend when it comes to designer drugs, Graham said.

"Being on the highway here ... and close to the U.S. border and close to Calgary brings a lot of activity around here."

Graham said it might be the remote location or the smaller population, but for the most part, organized crime hasn't had a major presence in Medicine Hat.

"Medicine Hat has traditionally been a market where we've heard and felt that organized crime has had a hard time getting involved with," he said.

"The reason being is we're smaller. We tend to be able to have our finger on the pulse of what's happening here quicker then maybe some of the cities in Alberta."

Graham said meth, an addictive drug that is often smoked and can give the user a quick high, is cheaper and in some users minds may be safer than fentanyl, a synthetic opioid which can cause an overdose in extremely small quantities.

Its popularity in Medicine Hat was evident following an incident at the local remand centre. Last December four Christmas cards delivered to the Medicine Hat Remand Centre were intercepted. The cards were soaked with a form of liquid meth intended for extraction by the inmates.

That's not to say police are taking fentanyl lightly in Medicine Hat.

There were 272 fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta last year and last month British Columbia became the first province in Canada to declare a public health emergency after a dramatic increase in the number of overdose deaths.

"We're taking fentanyl very seriously," Graham said. "Fentanyl can take a life just like that."

It's that deadly potential that has health officials are concentrating the bulk of their efforts on fighting fentanyl use.

"Our biggest concern is fentanyl because you don't know what you're getting. The challenge with fentanyl is you get variations and the concentrations of the strength of it can be huge," said Dr. Karin Goodison, the medical officer of health in Lethbridge, a city to the west.

"It's difficult ... You don't know what you're getting or not getting."

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