When fentanyl hit the streets in British Columbia in 2014, mayhem broke loose. Like a disease epidemic, the drug spread through the larger urban centres first — Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria — leaving dozens, then hundreds of overdosed victims in its wake.
Following the trend of most illicit drugs entering the market, fentanyl gained traction in western Canada first. Often prescribed as a painkiller to treat cancer patients, it's now regularly abused as a street drug in all corners of Canada.
"It's really hitting everywhere now," says Sgt. Eric Boechler, an RCMP officer in B.C.'s federal policing unit. "If it's not in a specific community, you'd better be ready for it, because it's coming."
For police officers on the ground responding to the influx of drug-related calls, fentanyl poses a significant safety risk. The synthetic opioid is 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be absorbed easily through the skin or accidentally inhaled by officers confiscating and handling the drug. In its purest form, just two milligrams — equivalent to a few grains of salt — can be deadly.
Although Canada is still in the thick of the fentanyl crisis, the RCMP is working with communities to confront the deadly drug. New police policies, procedures, teams and tools have helped officers across Canada keep communities safer.
For the RCMP in B.C., getting fentanyl training out quickly and effectively was critical for officer safety.
"Gone are the days where a white powder was likely cocaine or a cutting compound," says Boechler. "Now the risk threshold has gone way up, and there could be a threat to officer safety with any unknown white powder."
After several police officers were exposed to the drug in 2016, the RCMP released an awareness video warning first responders and the public about the dangers of fentanyl, and reminding officers to wear personal protective equipment: a respirator, doubled-up nitrile gloves and, if necessary, a hazmat suit to avoid skin contact.
To prepare for the worst-case scenario, the RCMP also released a national mandatory training course for naloxone, an antidote for opioids like fentanyl. More than 13,000 naloxone nasal spray kits were distributed to detachments across Canada and are now carried by on-duty officers in case of accidental exposure, or for first aid treatment on the public.
Another hurdle the RCMP faced was finding a way to identify if they were handling fentanyl, or a less toxic white powder. Common field tests — NIK and NARK kits — are not always accurate at detecting the drug. Boechler says these tests can give a false positive indicator for the presence of other drugs instead of fentanyl, which can lower an officer's risk assessment and put them in danger.
After months of testing, the RCMP is rolling out a new technological solution: ion scanners. The instruments, which are the size of a laptop computer, can perform a trace analysis on scene to determine if an area is contaminated with fentanyl or one of its analogs without having to send a sample to a lab, or call in a police dog.
"This is a big thing coming down the pipe nationally," says Boechler. "To be able to go in with a scientific instrument and tell our officers, 'it's safe' is huge."
RCMP in B.C have already acquired eight of the devices, with more on the way. Other provinces will follow suit in the coming months.
Once officer safety measures were in place, the RCMP had to act fast to target the source of the drug. While fentanyl can be produced in domestic clandestine labs, a large amount comes in shipments from China.
To address this, RCMP in B.C. created Project EPLAN, a provincial strategy targeting packages coming into the mail and cargo centres at the Vancouver airport. At the same time, the RCMP's Federal Policing Criminal Operations headquarters created an official National Synthetic Opioid Strategy with the focus of combatting international trafficking. Investigators are now working with China, the United States and European countries to identify international suppliers and prevent the drugs from entering Canada.
A key part of the RCMP's national opioid strategy is the new Organized Crime Joint Operations Centre (OC-JOC). The centre allows the RCMP to work closely with Canada Post and the Canadian Border Services Agency to keep fentanyl out of Canada.
"We're sharing and exchanging info in real time so that we can identify packages and gather intelligence and enforce this issue," says Sgt. Nini Varkonyi, an RCMP federal policing officer who works in the OC-JOC.
Federal RCMP also work with provincial partners to keep tabs on investigations, drug seizures and overdose deaths relating to fentanyl, and liaise with newly appointed provincial fentanyl co-ordinators.
"We have to get together and talk about this," says Varkonyi. "It's a daunting task — fentanyl is so big and widespread now. Working together is a necessity."
S/Sgt. Ed Stadnik, team commander of B.C.'s EPLAN, says fentanyl presents a new challenge for investigators. The drug comes in much smaller packages than most other illicit drugs, because it's much more concentrated. This has been a game-changer for police, who need to prove the recipient has knowledge of drugs in a package to convict them in court.
"Historically, we've done controlled deliveries where it's easy to prosecute since the amounts of heroin or cocaine were so large — pallets or duffle bags containing pressed bricks of drugs — that it would be obvious when a suspect picked it up," says Stadnik. "With fentanyl, we can't prove they knew what was in the package because it's so nondescript."
To get around this challenge, the RCMP started doing knock-and-talks, where they visit the delivery address of a package and interview the recipients to gain intelligence. Since then, the number of packages coming into Vancouver has drastically declined.
"A lot of sellers don't guarantee delivery to Canada anymore," says Stadnik. "Some of our informants have told us it's becoming harder to get fentanyl into the country."
As the RCMP grappled to contain the fentanyl crisis in B.C., other provinces began seeing the drug spill over their borders.
In response to growing drug trafficking violence and the rise of fentanyl in Grande Prairie, Alta., the local RCMP detachment created a five-person specialized drug unit. The team takes on in-depth drug investigations, homing in on fentanyl dealers and suppliers in the community.
Cpl. Eldon Chillog, the unit's supervisor, says his team has already made an impact. On a recent drug bust, they seized more than 2,000 fentanyl pills.
"We're seeing fewer people supplying and selling it because of our enforcement," says Chillog. "They know this unit will target them, so they've either stopped being involved with fentanyl entirely or have begun supplying coloured heroin instead."
On top of running investigations, the team gives presentations to nearby communities, providing awareness and warning the public about the dangers of fentanyl.
Cpl. Scott Hanson, a member of Manitoba's Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement and Response (CLEAR) team, also sees the value in working closely with communities. Shortly after fentanyl appeared, Manitoba Justice created a fentanyl task force involving health agencies, social services and law enforcement, including the RCMP.
"We're trying to slow the demand and shut off the supply — socially and through enforcement," he says. "Working together is a lot easier when you're at the same table, we can trade information back and forth now."
Hanson has watched the drug spread from major cities like Winnipeg out to the rural areas. To keep people safe, RCMP in Manitoba created an aggressive media campaign to educate the public. Hanson says their goal is to give people information so they can make smart decisions, rather than scaring them.
With their eyes on the west coast, eastern Canada began buckling down in 2014. To date, most of the RCMP's work in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island has been proactive preparations: training members and ordering supplies and resources. They're just now seeing more cases trickle into their jurisdictions.
On top of ensuring officers are properly trained, S/Sgt. Steve Conohan, an officer on Newfoundland RCMP's CLEAR team, is encouraging all detachments — urban and rural — to purchase additional personal protective equipment for front-line officers. The provincial CLEAR team also rolled out printable wallet cards for employees, outlining how to handle hazardous substances such as fentanyl.
"We're teaching our officers the steps to follow, A through Z," says Conohan. "The consistent message we're sending to our front-line officers is that we care that you go home at the end of your shift."
This year, Newfoundland RCMP also sent 20 employees from operations, intelligence, crime analysis and drug prevention to B.C. to be embedded in teams that are facing the brunt of the issue.
"We got to see how they did things and handled the day to day. They're the subject matter experts who've been dealing with this," says Conohan, who is sharing what he learned with his eastern colleagues. "We want to have a standardized approach for all our members across the country."